Chaos and Complexity #1: Coyotes, Chaos and Complexity

by Gary Monti on September 14, 2010

In this series we will dive into the complexities of…well…chaos and complexity. Why? A possible first thought is they are the “in” topics today – flavors of the month. The answer and the reality are far simpler. We have to deal with them on a daily basis. And, we have to get good at it if we are to survive and thrive.

There is another important reason. It has to do with the uniqueness of the theories. Chaos and complexity have broad application across many apparently different aspects of life from heart arrhythmias to children playing on a playground to counterinsurgencies. The list goes on-and-on.

So, let’s get started. But where? A good place is basic definitions along with how the two are connected.

CHAOS vs RANDOM

A common misconception regarding chaos is viewing it as synonymous with “random.” While that can be true in everyday use the two words are quite different when looked at in terms of chaos theory.

In chaos theory “random” refers to complete lack of structure and patterns. A classic example is the motion of gas molecules at the microscopic level. Newton would be driven crazy trying to predict their trajectories. (If you’ve had some physics you might recall the challenge of working with three-bodied problems or a double pendulum.)

Chaos on the other hand is quite different. Specifically, it applies to any system which has definitive rules of operation but shows nonlinear behavior. Assuming that is about as clear as mud some explanation may help.

“Nonlinearity” has some specific criteria which appear when looking at the elements of a chaotic system :

  • A chaotic system comprises components connected through deterministic rules;
  • With a given starting point in time a chaotic system ends up behaving in ways the rules cannot predict. This is the nonlinearity. It is rather strange. In every day terms what this means is a given system can be started at the exact same point two different times and the results will be both unpredictable and different. Multiparty, parliamentary systems reflect this well. The rules for operating the system are fairly constant. Forming a coalition government can be quite the example of nonlinearity as can be seen in modern day Iraq.

This can be maddening. The rules are clear, the components of the system are thoroughly understood by everyone and yet it’s impossible to get consistent results. What makes it even crazier is a third component:

  • The rules work and outcomes can be predicted in the immediate vicinity of a few components when a very short time span is used.

An example might help right now.

All of the above is observable in efforts to eliminate coyotes. Individual coyotes have been killed. However, efforts to do this on a mass scale has produced some interesting results. In the mid-eighteenth century coyotes were west of the Mississippi in about 11 states. Efforts to eliminate them have failed spectacularly with coyotes being in all 48 contiguous states. They have  lost their shyness of man and now live in urban areas. (Ironically, while I was conducting a workshop on complexity in downtown Chicago, on the floor below a coyote walked in off the street, jumped into an empty juice cooler inside the hotel’s quick stop store, rested for 20 minutes and then took off! The security video made the national news.)

This ability to thrive in chaotic situations leads to complexity.

COMPLEXITY

Four characteristics define complexity:

  • Adaptability
  • Connection
  • Interdependence
  • Diversity

Complex systems are a subset of chaotic ones in that they are nonlinear. Decisions are made on a microlevel and bubble up to the macro. This is in stark contrast to social engineering where everything is top-down. Coyote social systems reflect all 4 components quite well. Faced with annihilation the coyotes branched out geographically and socially and tried new behaviors (diversity). If the changes worked they stuck (adaptability). The lesson spread quickly through the social structure (connection) with individual behavior graduating to coordinated social behavior (interdependence).

Packs now go through some neighborhoods hunting for pets. In some areas attacks on young children have been reported. The latter behavior is not as successful (adult supervision) as the former so there is less of it. Regardless, the coyotes keep changing their game plan at a tactical level to simply find out what works and the change migrates up the social ladder to become a pack strategy.

This bottom-up approach to change has been alluded to in a previous blog (Executive Map) and is a hallmark of a type of organizational structure essential for success in chaotic situations – complex adaptive systems.

That is enough for now. As the series progresses we will go through the looking glass and see things from a very different perspective: one that is both familiar and strange: familiar because, after all, you’ve made it this far; strange because it cuts against the grain of some commonly held beliefs taken as truth.

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