In the first of this series of posts we explored the idea of the Black Elephant, the offspring of the ‘Elephant in the Room’ and the ‘Black Swan’. That is a looming and serious problem, which people ignore, until it takes them by surprise.
If you read almost any account of the lead up to the financial crisis of 2008 and later, it seems pretty obvious that people were selling shonky and over-complicated financial products to each other. US banks and loan agencies were giving loans to people, and many of these loans seemed designed to enable the lenders to throw borrowers out of their homes, so the lenders could profit from selling those homes in an inflationary market. These sales flooded the market with houses, causing a price crash which led to everyone losing. Computer modelers were being asked to do impossible things in the way of prediction on the markets.
Eventually the system would have to crash – and this was, in hindsight, blindingly obvious. It should have been obvious at the time, but it was a Black Elephant. Nearly everyone in the financial world refused to acknowledge these problems; probably because they seemed to be making so much out of it, and so the system crashed.
Likewise, pandemics are an expected consequence of global trade and travel, and viral mutation, yet governments ran down their preparation and resilience capacities, and more people died than was necessary trying for “herd immunity”. In some cases politicians seemed to be saying “no one could have expected this”, when it was perfectly expectable; the only doubts being as to when it would occur and how frequently. The same issues will almost certainly happen with climate change and ecological destruction. The world is finite, we cannot destroy the place we live faster than it can repair itself, and survive. And we cannot all be bailed out from such destruction by the Government.
Black Elephants, large and small, are common and possibly deadly, and, when they finally become undeniable, are hard to manage.
In the second post we explored in more detail the kinds of organisational structures and processes which hide, or generate, Black Elephants. We also looked at the paradoxes around finding the Black Elephant. The first of which is that the dominant people in the organisation must want to find the Elephant, but if they were serious about this, then they would probably already know it and not have to go looking. In other words, avoiding Black Elephants provides the perfect excuse for not looking for them, and being taken by ‘surprise’ instead of being prepared. I also mentioned the propensity of the way an organisation orders the world to be the way they disorder and undermine themselves – often by disregarding Black Elephants and the unintended consequences of their actions.
Finally we looked at a few basic techniques for trying to uncover Black Elephants, such as appointing a tenured Black Elephant hunter, and attempting to remove organisational blocks to information flow, by understanding, and working against, what makes those blocks.
Now let us look at the problem of complexity, and then move to the final set of suggestions for dealing with Black Elephants, before leaving it to the reader, should they wish to carry this set of ideas further.
Many people will already know something of complexity theory, but let us first look at the disconcerting aspects of it, which are frequently ignored through writers embracing the idea of “emergent order”. These chaotic features can be considered to be Black Elephants. They can lead to major problems which should be expected.
All social, ecological, organic, psychological, climatic etc. systems are complex – so there is no avoiding this.
Instability and dynamic change is the way of the world. Everything changes. Stability is rare and ‘unnatural’ and takes huge amounts of work. Eventually the work may take more energy and time than the organisation has available and change will reappear. Flux means that techniques which worked one day, may not work a week from now, or they may make things appear worse when applied today. Nothing is ever exactly the same. Standard actions may disrupt the intended order. This implies managers need to be constantly paying attention to all the relevant systems, and learning from results in them. Argument over how to proceed in any particular circumstance is more or less normal. However, its also worth using tried control mechanisms while they are still working. Change for its own sake may be disruptive in a bad way.
Complex systems are everywhere, and not completely bounded. The borders between systems are permeable. They ‘spill’ into each other. Actions in one system can affect actions in another, often unexpected, system. The apparent boundaries may appear because of culture or language, rather than reality. For example, ‘societies’ are not really separate from ‘ecologies.’ Humans are not independent from other life forms. Individuals are not completely independent from other humans. Another way of expressing this, is to say everything is Context Dependent. Human operators can tend to strip away context and interaction with other systems from their perceptions to make things easier to understand (this is often useful, but not always). This unboundedness means that causality is not straight forwardly linear; lots of different factors interact to produce the results we observe.
Any perception of overall harmony in a system or between systems, is probably false. The ‘advance’ of one part of the system will be resisted by other parts of the system. One creature feeds off another. Competition is as natural as co-operation. Humans have tended to emphasise either competition or co-operation, but both occur naturally. Apparent Harmony usually arises because one part of the system is forcibly sacrificed to another, or because the system has become rigid and, therefore, unprepared for unexpected shocks.
Unpredictability is a feature of complex systems. We never entirely know what will happen as a result of our actions. The further we look into the future the less we know. Any assumption of certainty is likely to be wrong. This does not mean that we cannot posit in advance what are the most likely actions to produce acceptable results, or which actions are the most likely to produce harmful results. We may be able to predict trends, but not specific events. Even so, we may be wrong – so it is essential to be conscious of feedback, ‘positive,’ ‘negative’ and ‘ambiguous’.
Because there are so many systems operating simultaneously, it can be hard to tell what exactly what are the direct results of your action, what results from your action in interaction with other actions, or from apparently unconnected actions. Every action has a history of previous actions, consequently there are never any ‘initial conditions’ to make a safe analysis from. It also means that contextual issues possibly cannot be finalised.
At certain moments in time avalanches can happen. Previously stable systems suffer lots of minor changes which appear to have little affect. Then one or a few more changes and the whole system careens out of control. The turmoil does not stop until a new relatively steady state arises – but as flux is normal, this steady state may not be that steady. Tipping points can look like Black Swans: events which seem impossible beforehand, but which were merely highly improbable. More likely they are Black Elephants which were probable, but which the organisation wished to postpone into the distant future.
People talk a lot about emergent order, but the orders emerging may appear chaotic, or destructive, from within established viewpoints. These emergent orders may disrupt system functioning, or lead to system destruction. An emergent order, may not be the order you, or the organisation, wants or needs.
Limits of organisation
Any organisation works up to a point. Success can lead to rigidity or lessening of capacity to respond to the flux, and thus to failure. To paraphrase an earlier statement: eventually the work of maintaining stability, or preferred organisation, may take more energy and time than the organisation has available and change will occur – and this will frequently be perceived and felt as collapse.
As it is a cliche, it should not have to be remarked that sometimes dealing with problems also presents opportunities. Sometimes these opportunities can be destructive or can present problems in themselves.
For example this can happen when one already dominant part of the organisation uses the problem as an opportunity to increase its dominance, and increase the number of other parts of the organisation that should be its underlings. This tends to render organisations less flexible and less responsive. `
While finding opportunities can be good, it should not distract from finding the problems. Organisations have endless ways of avoiding problems, already.
Metaphor and Analogy
Human thinking tends to proceed by using metaphors and analogies. An organisation takes a model from an area they think they understand and applies it to an area they realise they do not understand that well. Over time, with experience, failure and learning, the metaphor may change, although it may be hard to discard. Thus scientists approached atomic structures with a Newtonian orbital model mixed with a bit of field theory, and eventually came up with quantum mechanics, which is very easy for amateurs to misunderstand, as the model is nothing like what passes for common sense. And as it is not like common sense, the model can sometimes be used to justify almost anything.
As a society, we have tended to deal with problems through a semi-Newtonian model of regularity, singular cause and singular effect, using the analogy of a mechanical device. However, you cannot completely deal with a complex system through a mechanical metaphor or model. It will eventually escape, react in unexpected ways, and produce Black Elephants. Models may mislead as much as they enlighten (second Black Elephant Paradox). This is one reason why the model of complexity being presented is presented as semi-disconnected points, which are hopefully comprehensible and useful.
The point is to develop a model which is not just command and control.
Problem solving/adapting again
Dealing with flux
Flux is to be expected. It is the leaves on a tree which primarily face changes in the environment. They are the parts that often ‘know’ the immediate problems that have to be adapted to. The trunk provides structure and possibly co-ordination, but the leaves are the knowers, problem facers and doers.
An organisations workers, especially those that directly deal with those the organisation serves or uses, may know more than the management. If there is a first rule it should be “Do not suppress their information – however painful”. Open communication channels are worth the pain. The problem is whether ‘those who know,’ fear ‘those who co-ordinate’. If the leaders don’t want to know, then they will only come to know through pain, and if they get bailed out, or easily move to another similar job, they may never learn and may continue to spread destruction from one organisation to another.
In the lead up to the financial crisis, many organisations apparently threw out their risk analysts, because the risk analysts told them their behaviour could be self-destructive, or that the risks of these financial products were unknown, or too high. Computer modelers who told them that what they were required to deliver was impossible were branded as negative and obstructive, and sacked or silenced. There also appeared to be few ways of holding the drivers of these behaviours responsible or accountable, because they formed a relatively tightly organised and supportive group, that permeated the barriers between organisations. This produced a destructive stability.
The question here is how does the organisation, adapt and learn – whatever learning is. This goes back to removing informational blocks, investigating the ignored, and relaxing the hierarchy. The following investigation sessions might well need to be considered as something like a “feast of fools,” a disruption of the normal, so that what happens in the sessions in terms of friction and perceived insult is to be left there. This is not really possible, and the impossibility should be recognised, but it can be encouraged – along with courtesy. It also means that looking for change, or for accumulating change, in the environment is important, and that leads to the next point.
Dealing with unboundedness and context
The organisation exists amidst other forms of organisation and context. It is not separated from them, even if it pretends to be. Ask people to consider problems in different contexts. This method approximately uses the Nora Bateson Warm Data approach much simplified. In a workshop people can experience the effects of looking at different situations, or workings, through different contexts. I think it is probably a good idea for each context to have a fixed observer who takes notes, but this is not part of the formal process. Relevant contexts might include:
Economics, politics, familial, technological, religious, environmental, resource, educational (how does the organisation educate its members), hierarchy, and so on.
The meaning of information changes with context, but quite often in contemporary society, the context is stripped away from information and rendered abstract. Often numbers, and effectively impenetrable computer models, are used to help remove that context and meaning, even when it is doubtful that everything being analysed can be turned into a meaningful number. Thinking about contexts can help put back some of this important meaning, and can help make perceptible the real complex dynamics and multiple interconnections around what is being discussed. It opens us to Black Elephants, among other things.
As said earlier, there can be no definitive, or happily transferable, list of contexts. Contexts may well change; it may be useful to change them. Perhaps the participants can be asked for contexts, once they have the idea?
If people look for problems in different contexts, one after the other, then they seem more likely to get some knowledge of how contexts interact, or how problems or questions spill over into different fields and are influenced by them.
In Bateson’s work individuals move from a group of chairs defined as a context to another group of chairs defined as another context as they choose, joining and leaving as they want. There is no reason not to go back to a context, but staying in the one context is not helpful.
This is a form of idea stimulation. In this stage, there are no right answers, just exploration.
This process breaks up standardised patterns of interaction. People from different groups, silos, hierarchies and places in those hierarchies, may interact in new ways and, hopefully, convey new information and ideas. However, the organiser has to have some idea how much the higher-ups will tolerate this, and work accordingly.
Contexts can be thought of, by analogy, as a collection of grounds with the organisation as a figure in that multiple ground. Like a painting with figures in a series of overlapping landscapes.
It may be of some use to rotate the image, making the figure the ground for a context or vice versa.
Does this change the relationship?
Which should be dominant, and when?
Douglas Rushkoff remarks:
people who see the figure may be oblivious to major changes in the background, and people who see the background may not even remember what kind of figures it surrounded.Rushkoff Team Human – How Every Great Invention Turns Into Its Opposite
So at the least, this kind of exercise should help people be able to remember, and conceive, more of the whole picture. If we consider the possibility that Black Elephants are unremembered parts of the picture then perhaps these exercises will shake up the process of deletion.
Ruskoff makes two further remarks useful in this context. One gives an example of unintended reversal of figure and ground:
Corporations destroy the markets on which they depend or sell off their most productive divisions in order to increase the bottom line on their quarterly reports.Rushkoff Team Human – How Every Great Invention Turns Into Its Opposite
The corporation should be the figure in the context of the market, but in this ‘reversal’ the corporation has become context for the market, as if it could survive without the market, rather than needing a market (or an ecology, or a functional political system, or an accurate information system etc) to survive itself. This seems a pretty general occurrence, and comes to seem natural – but it is often destructive.
Once the figure and ground have been reversed, technology only disguises the problem.Rushkoff Team Human – Technologies Don’t Solve Problems
Technology provides a context for information. One question that might be asked, as implied earlier, is how does it hide as well as reveal? For example stock trading technology, may only focus on price movements, and in feedback with other trading tech, may completely hide the relationship of share price to economic reality, or investment to its function of opening real possibility for new, or worthwhile, ventures.
The point of these exercises is to free up people’s other creative faculties in an organisational context dealing with problems.
After exploring contexts, people can also expand their ability to represent the problems and opportunities through collective ‘art diagrams’. Individual art works can also be useful, but the collective route tends to diminish the inhibition that people have around, ‘I can’t draw’, ‘I’m not an artist’. People can be provided with figurines, and picture magazines, for pre-made illustrations. They can cut up the pictures however they like.
The diagrams can have active stories, which also convey information, occurring within them, as people move figurines around or add new lines, places, and pictures to the diagram. The diagram is a flux itself, and the stories bring in different, permeable and shifting, contexts. It is a usual piece of courtesy to have the rule that a person cannot move another person’s figurine, or picture without permission – although they can describe what they would like to do, and that often becomes a dialogue going places that neither person might have expected alone.
People might even imagine problems, and discuss how those problems would be dealt with. There are no right answers.
If you have two days, then ask everyone that night to try and recall and write down their dreams. Discuss the dreams the next day. Dreams can give insights. However, in this case the dreams are not to be taken as being about dreamer, but about the problems, or the events of the previous day. No personal analysis, by other people, is to be allowed for the fairly obvious reason, that this can become a put down.
Similar procedures can be used with the following issues
Dealing with Divergence
Ask yourself, or your group, where the conflicts, are in your organisation or context, or between organisations and contexts. How do these conflicts help the organisation keep going? What problems do they mask? What harmonies are imposed, and does divergence get suppressed? Ask the questions within different contexts. Explore inverting the figure/ground relationship in different contexts.
Dealing with Unpredictability
One obvious exercise is for people, or groups, to look at historical predictions about what will happen, and compare them to what actually happened. Often the best worst predictions are those made near the events that came to pass. What did people miss? Why did they miss it? If you can remember predictions the organisation, or yourself, got wrong, think about looking at them. Consider some of the sociology of ignorance points, and the complexity points, and relevant, or apparently random, contexts that were not considered. How would you advise the people involved to avoid similar mistakes in future?
If any of this makes sense or appeals, then people should be able to work out their own processes for gaining awareness of the other Black Elephants that arise from other points of complexity.
This is, as I stated previously, a blog post. It is a series of suggestions only. Organisations are complex and very good at hiding their social unconscious – they may also be very good at enforcing that unconsciousness and punishing those who draw it to their attention. What you, or the organisation, do with these suggestions is up to you, and it is your responsibility – because of that complexity – no writer can know exactly what your situation is, or predict what will happen in detail.
No advice always works. That might be the final lesson of this series 🙂