#37: Complexity myths and gurus

Learning from the margin, transforming the core.

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,

This week I had the real pleasure of talking to Tyson Yunkaporta on his excellent podcast The Other Others about the fallacies and pitfalls of complexity theory and systems thinking. For those that don’t know Tyson, stop what you’re doing right now and order yourself a copy of Sand Talk: How Indigenous Thinking Can Save the World.

🎧 You can listen to our conversation by clicking here 🔊

I’ve long been a fan of Tyson’s thinking and writing, so it was a joy to spend our conversation right in the middle of my favourite geek zone: attempting to define what complexity theory is and how it takes shape in the world. We reflect on the knowledge politics of the discipline and the particular role that ‘gurus’ play in producing its dynamics. We agree that values matter and that there is nothing neutral about systems thinking and what it enables us to do. We discuss how to move from the feels and thinks into the more difficult sphere of action.

The fallout from the conversation has had my brain churning all week. In particular, I’ve been reflecting on the ‘gurus’ that have shaped my journey through the world of systems and complexity. The purpose of this issue is to share some of those gurus with you. I have already canvassed parts of this journey in previous issues (link, link) and have chosen the people I introduce below so as not to be repetitive. Like previous issues, the people below are a mix of recognised complexity gurus and those would probably never use the word to describe their own work. As Tyson and I discuss, sometimes the most sensible people are at the margins and without them, it’s hard to properly understand the core.

Maria Lugones

Maria Lugones was an Argentine feminist philosopher, activist, and academic. Her article Playfulness, "World"-Travelling, and Loving Perception was recommended to me at a pivotal time in my PhD and helped me understand diverse perspectives as something to be embraced, rather than ignored. I find myself leaning back on the final line of the abstract of this article “Unity—not to be confused with solidarity—is understood as conceptually tied to domination” every time someone tells me we need a shared language for complexity or systems work. Unity, Maria reminds us, generally serves to consolidate the power of those that already have it. Her most famous book of essays Pilgrimages/Peregrinajes remains one of my favourites.

Paul Cilliers

Paul Cilliers was a South African philosopher and complexity theorist. Many readers will be familiar with his book Complexity and Postmodernism, which was one of my first introductions to hard-core complexity theory. For many years, I had Paul’s list of complexity characteristics (pg. 14) stuck above my desk and continue to routinely reference them. What makes Paul one of my favourite gurus is his deep, abiding belief in the values of humility and modesty as pillars of complexity work. Here’s to that view being more widespread! We cannot know complex things completely. For those interested in learning more about Paul’s work, Abeba Birhane has live-tweeted her reading of his collected essays.

Anna Birney

Anna Birney is the Director of the School for Systems Change and writes regularly on Medium about systems change and facilitation. I’m always drawn to the accessibility of Anna’s writing and to the way she seamlessly weaves together content from a wide and diverse range of sources. I find myself returning to Anna’s work (particularly this, this and this) when people ask me for a short introduction to the theory and practice of systems work. Anna is also the driving force behind the Stories of Change project, a bank of excellent resources that surface examples of systems change from history and popular culture, from the birth of rock and roll to the rise of the civil rights movement. You can find Anna on Twitter @AnnasQuestions.

Alexis Shotwell

Alexis Shotwell is a Professor at Carlton University and the author of Against Purity: Living Ethically in Compromised Times. Long-time readers will know I am fascinated by the ethical implications of taking complexity seriously. Alexis is a path-breaker in this space. In Against Purity she argues that “personal purity is simultaneously inadequate, impossible, and politically dangerous for shared projects of living on earth.” Instead, “if we want a world with less suffering and more flourishing, it would be useful to perceive complexity and complicity as the constitutive situation of our lives, rather than as things we should avoid.” The challenge she lays down is that we must try to create an ethical system that works with complexity without presuming to be sovereign over it. A timely challenge indeed. You can follow her on Twitter @alexisshotwell.

In conversations about which ‘guru’ when and how, it is easy to default to either defending the established intellectual core or romanticising the borderlands. It’s important to push against and sit with that polarity when we consider the overall shape of the complexity ecosystem and when we chose the ‘gurus’ we rely on to help us form our own practice. In both situations, there’s value in shooting for some kind of balance—an optimal marginality of sorts—in who we include and how we engage with them. At the same time, it pays to remember that we diminish the vitality of complexity as a discipline by trying too hard to define or fix its margin and core. As Paul Cilliers would remind us the shape of our practice cannot be static, but neither should it be too fluid. It emerges, for each of us, through a process of ongoing maintenance and revision: core to margin, margin to core.

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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>.