Social Complexity and Agility

1st International Workshop on Complexity and Real-World Applications, Day 1

Yesterday was the first day of the 1st International Workshop on Complexity and Real-World Applications , an invitation-only event held in Southampton. Set in a scenic venue, the conference was organised in a loveably sloppy way by Andrew Tait and Kurt Richardson. The two of them are doing an admirable job, but the scenic venue is tending to be the biggest problem. As a hotel that probably caters mainly to weddings on weekends, it is woefully inadequate as a conference venue. You can follow the conference on Twitter (hashtag #cxapps), but the bad internet connectivity means that the back-channel communication I’m accustomed to from geek conferences isn’t happening. Also, being stuffed in a room with tables arranged in a U-form introduced an environment that was more conducive to presenting than to discussing, but at least we could break out into other parts of the scenic venue for conversations – and we did that a lot.

The workshop started with Kurt explaining the motivation behind organising it, after which followed the round of what Mark McKergow called “creeping-death” introductions. Although I also dislike such introduction rounds, it was fascinating to hear what diversity and depth of experience the attendees brought with them, and it was comforting to hear that they understood the same thing that I do for terms such as complexity and self-organisation.

After the introductions, we enjoyed the first part of a talk by George Rzevski, professor emeritus for complexity science at the Open University. I won’t go into the talk in detail; the slides are available on the workshop website. One slide, though, was very thought- and discussion-provoking. There is still no generally agreed-on definition of complexity, and dozens of attempts exist. George presented his 7 criteria for complexity, which we found that (although there were differing points of view that could be discussed) seemed to all of us to be ok, good enough, a good first step towards a common definition.

George Rzevski’s Seven Criteria for Complexity

  1. INTERACTION – A complex system consists of a large number of diverse components (Agents) engaged in rich interaction
  2. AUTONOMY – Agents are largely autonomous but subject to certain laws, rules or norms; there is no central control but agent behaviour is not random
  3. EMERGENCE – Global behaviour of a complex system “emerges” from the interaction of agents and is therefore unpredictable
  4. FAR FROM EQUILIBRIUM – Complex systems are “far from equilibrium” because frequent occurrences of disruptive events do not allow the system to return to the equilibrium
  5. NONLINEARITY – Nonlinearity occasionally causes an insignificant input to be amplified into an extreme event (butterfly effect)
  6. SELF-ORGANISATION – Complex systems are capable of self-organisation in response to disruptive events
  7. CO-EVOLUTION – Complex systems irreversibly co-evolve with their environments

After lunch, we held an extended poster session. Having never done a poster session before, I simply drew one using visualisation techniques (thanks to Martin Haussmann for teaching me!), and was surpised at the positive responses I got. My topic is the bi-directional insights of using the Cynefin method to understand why Agile works, and using Scrum as a framework for managing work in the complex domain. I’ll be presenting my paper on this later this morning, and am looking forward to the feedback and discussions that will come. During the poster session, I also had interesting talks with Mark McKergow on solution-focused therapy and complexity, and with Ed Olson on his CDE model and the Cynefin ABIDE model, which I use quite heavily in my work on self-organising teams.

When the poster session was done, there was still some time until the evening barbeque, and George Rzevski presented the second part of his talk. He’s done fascinating and world-class work, I highly recommend checking out his slides.

Dinner, drinks and conversation followed, and by the time I got to bed, I was suffering from information overload, and was too tired to write this blog post, which is why I’m doing it now.

More later.

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