#36: No tool is omnicompetent

Thoughts on assembling a toolbox for complexity and knowing how to use it.

I’m Luke Craven; this is another of my weekly explorations of how systems thinking and complexity can be used to drive real, transformative change in the public sector and beyond. The first issue explains what the newsletter is about; you can see all the issues here.

Hello, dear reader,

Last week I attended Complexity Yarns with Indigenous Thinkers, the first in a series of three webinars that put different thinkers in conversation with each other about complexity. Despite not being named on the event page, the highlight was listening to stories shared by Chels Marshall and Beth Smith about how they challenge the people they work with to recognise and value different ways of seeing and knowing the world.

Chels’s reflection that the most non-confrontational way to expose people to different knowledge systems (Indigenous thinking, systems thinking, complexity, etc.) is to frame them as tools particularly resonated with me.1 There’s a lot to like about this framing. It’s a metaphor that is widely accessible and intuitive. It has a pragmatic, action-driven orientation. It avoids criticising people (implicitly or otherwise) for inhabiting different paradigms or holding particular worldviews. It recognises that we will likely need to use multiple tools, often in combination, to make sense of the world around us.

Increasingly I have been using this tool-based framing in my own work, particularly with those that are new to systems and complexity theory. I find it helpful to remember that no tool is omnicompetent. This is as true as a fork or a hammer as it is of nonlinear thinking. Louis Menand captures the essence of this approach, in his seminal study of William James, Oliver Wendell Holmes, and Charles Pierce, The Metaphysical Club:

“A knowledge system has no greater metaphysical stature than say, a fork. When your fork proves inadequate to the task of eating soup, it makes little sense to argue about whether there is something inherent in the nature of forks or something inherent in the nature of soup that accounts for the failure. You just reach for a spoon.” (p. 361)

Bring your forks, bring your spoons

To push this metaphor a little further, wouldn’t we save ourselves all a lot of trouble if there was a combination tool for use in all contexts? A spork will arguably serve you well for both soup and salad, so why do we persist with the use of specialised tools? If my experience in the kitchen is anything to go by, it takes a lot of mental energy to remember where each specialist tool is, what it is meant for, and how to wield it. We love a silver bullet solution for precisely this reason. It feels easy and more cognitively efficient, but it doesn’t scale. Individually and in combination, I get a wider range of affordances from my spoon and fork than I do from a spork.

When it comes down to it, cognitive tools are really not so different from kitchen utensils. We like to elevate them and to see them as different or special, but that is a distinction we impose rather than one inherent to the category itself. In both contexts, tool diversity helps us develop more effective responses to complexity.

In my systems practice, I use a variety of tools (cognitive, technical, etc.) from different branches of the complexity sciences, in combination where necessary, to help me respond to a particular problem or context. Frequently, I also weave in other tools that are not represented on this map: scientific, intuitive, linear, mystic, spiritual, embodied. Sometimes old tools need to change and sometimes new tools are needed. But the idea that we ought to create some kind of spork-like complexity Frankenstein is just as absurd as the view that one part of this map is the right tool for every context. Neither lines up with how we experience and respond to the world.

Teaching a toolbox

I’ve been reflecting a lot recently on what a tool-based understanding of systems practice means for how we ought to teach it. I’ve taught systems thinking and applied complexity to a range of different audiences: university students, Australian Defence Force personnel, and public sector design practitioners, just to name a few. Despite the stark differences in my experience across these contexts, there are some principles I have found to hold true:

  1. Teach pluralism before practice. For me, the foundation of systems work is that there is no one right way to respond to complexity. In my experience, rushing to expose students to different systems tools (cognitive, technical, etc.) before they understand that can result in the dogmatic and uncritical belief in particular tools to the exclusion of others. I’ve experimented with different ways of building this pluralistic muscle in learning environments, including activities where students discuss what it means to be a good listener and those where they creatively depict their lived experience of complexity and share it back with the group. I’ve found these experiences help people approach the tools they go on to learn with a more critical orientation, which enables them to combine and experiment with them in creative and unexpected ways.

  2. Focus on situational awareness. There is no doubt that opening a large toolbox can be a daunting experience. Different tools suit different contexts. Deciding which tool—or combination of tools—to use in a specific context requires the tool wielder to make complex trade-offs between their respective strengths and limitations. For truly novel problems, tool use often requires exaptive leaps for which we can’t rely on past experience. To develop the situational awareness to know what tool works when people need to be given the opportunity to experiment with the tools they are being exposed to. In my teaching, I like to do this through use group-based scenario activities, where each group is tasked with using their toolbox to develop a response to a problem question. Unsurprisingly, each group will use a different process and arrive at a different answer, which provides good conversational fodder for the group to explore which tools were useful to them and why.

  3. Centre the individual. I undoubtedly have my own style of systems practice, but my priority as a teacher of systems practice is to help each of my students develop their own personal style that will fit their strengths and weaknesses. It matters why people are interested in becoming more proficient in systems tools and what experiences have led them to that point. Cookie-cutter training courses that focus on content delivery instead of relational instruction are unlikely to be fruitful because they don’t provide the opportunity for a teacher to learn more about their students and adapt their process accordingly. All of the activities I use in my teaching, including those I discuss above, are designed as much for this purpose as they are for students to build their awareness and proficiency in systems tools.

These principles make sense to me and perhaps they make sense to you. They don't always fit perfectly in practice and I’m figuring a lot out as I go. In recent weeks I have started to talk to others about the absence of shared practice relating to teaching complexity and systems and of research into what works, when and why. I think that these are important gaps to fill. If you do too, I’d love to hear from you!

By the way: This newsletter is hard to categorise and probably not for everyone—but if you know unconventional thinkers who might enjoy it, please share it with them.

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Find me elsewhere on the web at www.lukecraven.com, on Twitter @LukeCraven, on LinkedIn here, or by email at <luke.k.craven@gmail.com>.


In the same conversation, Tyson Yunkaporta referred to them as “psycho-technologies”, which I also find compelling, but slightly more academic…!