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Chaos as a system: New Framework

Chaos is not an unordered phenomenon. There is a certain homeostatic mechanism at play that forces a system that might have inherent characteristics of a “chaotic” process to converge to some sort of stability with respect to predictability and parallelism. Our understanding of order which is deemed to be opposite of chaos is the fact that there is a shared consensus that the system will behave in an expected manner. Hence, we often allude to systems as being “balanced” or “stable” or “in order” to spotlight these systems. However, it is also becoming common knowledge in the science of chaos that slight changes in initial conditions in a system can emit variability in the final output that might not be predictable. So how does one straddle order and chaos in an observed system, and what implications does this process have on ongoing study of such systems?

line chaos

Chaotic systems can be considered to have a highly complex order. It might require the tools of pure mathematics and extreme computational power to understand such systems. These tools have invariably provided some insights into chaotic systems by visually representing outputs as re-occurrences of a distribution of outputs related to a given set of inputs. Another interesting tie up in this model is the existence of entropy, that variable that taxes a system and diminishes the impact on expected outputs. Any system acts like a living organism: it requires oodles of resources to survive and a well-established set of rules to govern its internal mechanism driving the vector of its movement. Suddenly, what emerges is the fact that chaotic systems display some order while subject to an inherent mechanism that softens its impact over time. Most approaches to studying complex and chaotic systems involve understanding graphical plots of fractal nature, and bifurcation diagrams. These models illustrate very complex re occurrences of outputs directly related to inputs. Hence, complex order occurs from chaotic systems.

A case in point would be the relation of a population parameter in the context to its immediate environment. It is argued that a population in an environment will maintain a certain number and there would be some external forces that will actively work to ensure that the population will maintain at that standard number. It is a very Malthusian analytic, but what is interesting is that there could be some new and meaningful influences on the number that might increase the scale. In our current meaning, a change in technology or ingenuity could significantly alter the natural homeostatic number. The fact remains that forces are always at work on a system. Some systems are autonomic – it self-organizes and corrects itself toward some stable convergence. Other systems are not autonomic and once can only resort to the laws of probability to get some insight into the possible outputs – but never to a point where there is a certainty in predictive prowess.

embrace chaos

Organizations have a lot of interacting variables at play at any given moment. In order to influence the organization behavior or/and direction, policies might be formulated to bring about the desirable results. However, these nudges toward setting off the organization in the right direction might also lead to unexpected results. The aim is to foresee some of these unexpected results and mollify the adverse consequences while, in parallel, encourage the system to maximize the benefits. So how does one effect such changes?

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It all starts with building out an operating framework. There needs to be a clarity around goals and what the ultimate purpose of the system is. Thus there are few objectives that bind the framework.

  1. Clarity around goals and the timing around achieving these goals. If there is no established time parameter, then the system might jump across various states over time and it would be difficult to establish an outcome.
  2. Evaluate all of the internal and external factors that might operate in the framework that would impact the success of organizational mandates and direction. Identify stasis or potential for stasis early since that mental model could stem the progress toward a desirable impact.
  3. Apply toll gates strategically to evaluate if the system is proceeding along the lines of expectation, and any early aberrations are evaluated and the rules are tweaked to get the system to track on a desirable trajectory.
  4. Develop islands of learning across the path and engage the right talent and other parameters to force adaptive learning and therefore a more autonomic direction to the system.
  5. Bind the agents and actors in the organization to a shared sense of purpose within the parameter of time.
  6. Introduce diversity into the framework early in the process. The engagement of diversity allows the system to modulate around a harmonic mean.
  7. Finally, maintain a well document knowledge base such that the accretive learning that results due to changes in the organization become springboard for new initiatives that reduces the costs of potential failures or latency in execution.
  8. Encouraging the leadership to ensure that the vector is pointed toward the right direction at any given time.

 

Once a framework and the engagement rules are drawn out, it is necessary to rely on the natural velocity and self-organization of purposeful agents to move the agenda forward, hopefully with little or no intervention. A mechanism of feedback loops along the way would guide the efficacy of the direction of the system. The implications is that the strategy and the operations must be aligned and reevaluated and positive behavior is encouraged to ensure that the systems meets its objective.

edge of chaos

However, as noted above, entropy is a dynamic that often threatens to derail the system objective. There will be external or internal forces constantly at work to undermine system velocity. The operating framework needs to anticipate that real possibility and pre-empt that with rules or introduction of specific capital to dematerialize these occurrences. Stasis is an active agent that can work against the system dynamic. Stasis is the inclination of agents or behaviors that anchors the system to some status quo – we have to be mindful that change might not be embraced and if there are resistors to that change, the dynamic of organizational change can be invariably impacted. It will take a lot more to get something done than otherwise needed. Identifying stasis and agents of stasis is a foundational element

While the above is one example of how to manage organizations in the shadows of the properties of how chaotic systems behave, another example would be the formulation of strategy of the organization in responses to external forces. How do we apply our learnings in chaos to deal with the challenges of competitive markets by aligning the internal organization to external factors? One of the key insights that chaos surfaces is that it is nigh impossible for one to fully anticipate all of the external variables, and leaving the system to dynamically adapt organically to external dynamics would allow the organization to thrive. To thrive in this environment is to provide the organization to rapidly change outside of the traditional hierarchical expectations: when organizations are unable to make those rapid changes or make strategic bets in response to the external systems, then the execution value of the organization diminishes.

Margaret Wheatley in her book Leadership and the New Science: Discovering Order in a Chaotic World Revised says, “Organizations lack this kind of faith, faith that they can accomplish their purposes in various ways and that they do best when they focus on direction and vision, letting transient forms emerge and disappear. We seem fixated on structures…and organizations, or we who create them, survive only because we build crafty and smart—smart enough to defend ourselves from the natural forces of destruction. Karl Weick, an organizational theorist, believes that “business strategies should be “just in time…supported by more investment in general knowledge, a large skill repertoire, the ability to do a quick study, trust in intuitions, and sophistication in cutting losses.”

We can expand the notion of a chaos in a system to embrace the bigger challenges associated with environment, globalization, and the advent of disruptive technologies.

One of the key challenges to globalization is how policy makers would balance that out against potential social disintegration. As policies emerge to acknowledge the benefits and the necessity to integrate with a new and dynamic global order, the corresponding impact to local institutions can vary and might even lead to some deleterious impact on those institutions. Policies have to encourage flexibility in local institutional capability and that might mean increased investments in infrastructure, creating a diverse knowledge base, establishing rules that govern free but fair trading practices, and encouraging the mobility of capital across borders. The grand challenges of globalization is weighed upon by government and private entities that scurry to create that continual balance to ensure that the local systems survive and flourish within the context of the larger framework. The boundaries of the system are larger and incorporates many more agents which effectively leads to the real possibility of systems that are difficult to be controlled via a hierarchical or centralized body politic Decision making is thus pushed out to the agents and actors but these work under a larger set of rules. Rigidity in rules and governance can amplify failures in this process.

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Related to the realities of globalization is the advent of the growth in exponential technologies. Technologies with extreme computational power is integrating and create robust communication networks within and outside of the system: the system herein could represent nation-states or companies or industrialization initiatives. Will the exponential technologies diffuse across larger scales quickly and will the corresponding increase in adoption of new technologies change the future of the human condition? There are fears that new technologies would displace large groups of economic participants who are not immediately equipped to incorporate and feed those technologies into the future: that might be on account of disparity in education and wealth, institutional policies, and the availability of opportunities. Since technologies are exponential, we get a performance curve that is difficult for us to understand. In general, we tend to think linearly and this frailty in our thinking removes us from the path to the future sooner than later. What makes this difficult is that the exponential impact is occurring across various sciences and no one body can effectively fathom the impact and the direction. Bill Gates says it well “We always overestimate the change that will occur in the next two years and underestimate the change that will occur in the next ten. Don’t let yourself be lulled into inaction.” Does chaos theory and complexity science arm us with a differentiated tool set than the traditional toolset of strategy roadmaps and product maps? If society is being carried by the intractable and power of the exponent in advances in technology, than a linear map might not serve to provide the right framework to develop strategies for success in the long-term. Rather, a more collaborative and transparent roadmap to encourage the integration of thoughts and models among the actors who are adapting and adjusting dynamically by the sheer force of will would perhaps be an alternative and practical approach in the new era.

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Lately there has been a lot of discussion around climate change. It has been argued, with good reason and empirical evidence, that environment can be adversely impacted on account of mass industrialization, increase in population, resource availability issues, the inability of the market system to incorporate the cost of spillover effects, the adverse impact of moral hazard and the theory of the commons, etc. While there are demurrers who contest the long-term climate change issues, the train seems to have already left the station! The facts do clearly reflect that the climate will be impacted. Skeptics might argue that science has not yet developed a precise predictive model of the weather system two weeks out, and it is foolhardy to conclude a dystopian future on climate fifty years out. However, the alternative argument is that our inability to exercise to explain the near-term effects of weather changes and turbulence does not negate the existence of climate change due to the accretion of greenhouse impact. Boiling a pot of water will not necessarily gives us an understanding of all of the convection currents involved among the water molecules, but it certainly does not shy away from the fact that the water will heat up.

Distribution Economics

Distribution is a method to get products and services to the maximum number of customers efficiently.

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Complexity science is the study of complex systems and the problems that are multi-dimensional, dynamic and unpredictable. It constitutes a set of interconnected relationships that are not always abiding to the laws of cause and effect, but rather the modality of non-linearity. Thomas Kuhn in his pivotal essay: The Structure of Scientific Revolutions posits that anomalies that arise in scientific method rise to the level where it can no longer be put on hold or simmer on a back-burner: rather, those anomalies become the front line for new methods and inquiries such that a new paradigm necessarily must emerge to supplant the old conversations. It is this that lays the foundation of scientific revolution – an emergence that occurs in an ocean of seeming paradoxes and competing theories. Contrary to a simple scientific method that seeks to surface regularities in natural phenomenon, complexity science studies the effects that rules have on agents. Rules do not drive systems toward a predictable outcome: rather it sets into motion a high density of interactions among agents such that the system coalesces around a purpose: that being necessarily that of survival in context of its immediate environment. In addition, the learnings that follow to arrive at the outcome is then replicated over periods to ensure that the systems mutate to changes in the external environment. In theory, the generative rules leads to emergent behavior that displays patterns of parallelism to earlier known structures.

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For any system to survive and flourish, distribution of information, noise and signals in and outside of a CPS or CAS is critical. We have touched at length that the system comprises actors and agents that work cohesively together to fulfill a special purpose. Specialization and scale matter! How is a system enabled to fulfill their purpose and arrive at a scale that ensures long-term sustenance? Hence the discussion on distribution and scale which is a salient factor in emergence of complex systems that provide the inherent moat of “defensibility” against internal and external agents working against it.

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Distribution, in this context, refers to the quality and speed of information processing in the system. It is either created by a set of rules that govern the tie-ups between the constituent elements in the system or it emerges based on a spontaneous evolution of communication protocols that are established in response to internal and external stimuli. It takes into account the available resources in the system or it sets up the demands on resource requirements. Distribution capabilities have to be effective and depending upon the dynamics of external systems, these capabilities might have to be modified effectively. Some distribution systems have to be optimized or organized around efficiency: namely, the ability of the system to distribute information efficiently. On the other hand, some environments might call for less efficiency as the key parameter, but rather focus on establishing a scale – an escape velocity in size and interaction such that the system can dominate the influence of external environments. The choice between efficiency and size is framed by the long-term purpose of the system while also accounting for the exigencies of ebbs and flows of external agents that might threaten the system’s existence.

Partner Ecosystem

Since all systems are subject to the laws of entropy and the impact of unintended consequences, strategies have to be orchestrated accordingly. While it is always naïve to assume exactitude in the ultimate impact of rules and behavior, one would surmise that such systems have to be built around the fault lines of multiple roles for agents or group of agents to ensure that the system is being nudged, more than less, toward the desired outcome. Hence, distribution strategy is the aggregate impact of several types of channels of information that are actively working toward a common goal. The idea is to establish multiple channels that invoke different strategies while not cannibalizing or sabotaging an existing set of channels. These mutual exclusive channels have inherent properties that are distinguished by the capacity and length of the channels, the corresponding resources that the channels use and the sheer ability to chaperone the system toward the overall purpose.

social economics

The complexity of the purpose and the external environment determines the strategies deployed and whether scale or efficiency are the key barometers for success. If a complex system must survive and hopefully replicate from strength to greater strength over time, size becomes more paramount than efficiency. Size makes up for the increased entropy which is the default tax on the system, and it also increases the possibility of the system to reach the escape velocity. To that end, managing for scale by compromising efficiency is a perfectly acceptable means since one is looking at the system with a long-term lens with built-in regeneration capabilities. However, not all systems might fall in this category because some environments are so dynamic that planning toward a long-term stability is not practical, and thus one has to quickly optimize for increased efficiency. It is thus obvious that scale versus efficiency involves risky bets around how the external environment will evolve. We have looked at how the systems interact with external environments: yet, it is just as important to understand how the actors work internally in a system that is pressed toward scale than efficiency, or vice versa. If the objective is to work toward efficiency, then capabilities can be ephemeral: one builds out agents and actors with capabilities that are mission-specific. On the contrary, scale driven systems demand capabilities that involve increased multi-tasking abilities, the ability to develop and learn from feedback loops, and to prime the constraints with additional resources. Scaling demand acceleration and speed: if a complex system can be devised to distribute information and learning at an accelerating pace, there is a greater likelihood that this system would dominate the environment.

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Scaling systems can be approached by adding more agents with varying capabilities. However, increased number of participants exponentially increase the permutations and combinations of channels and that can make the system sluggish. Thus, in establishing the purpose and the subsequent design of the system, it is far more important to establish the rules of engagement. Further, the rules might have some centralized authority that will directionally provide the goal while other rules might be framed in a manner to encourage a pure decentralization of authority such that participants act quickly in groups and clusters to enable execution toward a common purpose.

push pull

In business we are surrounded by uncertainty and opportunities. It is how we calibrate around this that ultimately reflects success. The ideal framework at work would be as follows:

  1. What are the opportunities and what are the corresponding uncertainties associated with the opportunities? An honest evaluation is in order since this is what sets the tone for the strategic framework and direction of the organization.
  2. Should we be opportunistic and establish rules that allow the system to gear toward quick wins: this would be more inclined toward efficiencies. Or should we pursue dominance by evaluating our internal capability and the probability of winning and displacing other systems that are repositioning in advance or in response to our efforts? At which point, speed and scale become the dominant metric and the resources and capabilities and the set of governing rules have to be aligned accordingly.
  3. How do we craft multiple channels within and outside of the system? In business lingo, that could translate into sales channels. These channels are selling products and services and can be adding additional value along the way to the existing set of outcomes that the system is engineered for. The more the channels that are mutually exclusive and clearly differentiated by their value propositions, the stronger the system and the greater the ability to scale quickly. These antennas, if you will, also serve to be receptors for new information which will feed data into the organization which can subsequently process and reposition, if the situation so warrants. Having as many differentiated antennas comprise what constitutes the distribution strategy of the organization.
  4. The final cut is to enable a multi-dimensional loop between external and internal system such that the system expands at an accelerating pace without much intervention or proportionate changes in rules. In other words, system expands autonomously – this is commonly known as the platform effect. Scale does not lead to platform effect although the platform effect most definitely could result in scale. However, scale can be an important contributor to platform effect, and if the latter gets root, then the overall system achieves efficiency and scale in the long run.

Winner Take All Strategy

Being the first to cross the finish line makes you a winner in only one phase of life. It’s what you do after you cross the line that really counts.
– Ralph Boston

Does winner-take-all strategy apply outside the boundaries of a complex system? Let us put it another way. If one were to pursue a winner-take-all strategy, then does this willful strategic move not bind them to the constraints of complexity theory? Will the net gains accumulate at a pace over time far greater than the corresponding entropy that might be a by-product of such a strategy? Does natural selection exhibit a winner-take-all strategy over time and ought we then to regard that winning combination to spur our decisions around crafting such strategies? Are we fated in the long run to arrive at a world where there will be a very few winners in all niches and what would that mean? How does that surmise with our good intentions of creating equal opportunities and a fair distribution of access to resources to a wider swath of the population? In other words, is a winner take all a deterministic fact and does all our trivial actions to counter that constitute love’s labor lost?

business award

Natural selection is a mechanism for evolution. It explains how populations or species evolve or modify over time in such a manner that it becomes better suited to their environments. Recall the discussion on managing scale in the earlier chapter where we discussed briefly about aligning internal complexity to external complexity. Natural selection is how it plays out at a biological level. Essentially natural selection posits that living organisms have inherited traits that help them to survive and procreate. These organisms will largely leave more offspring than their peers since the presumption is that these organisms will carry key traits that will survive the vagaries of external complexity and environment (predators, resource scarcity, climate change, etc.) Since these traits are passed on to the next generate, these traits will become more common until such time that the traits are dominant over generations, if the environment has not been punctuated with massive changes. These organisms with these dominant traits will have adapted to their environment. Natural selection does not necessarily suggest that what is good for one is good for the collective species.

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An example that was shared by Robert Frank in his book “The Darwin Economy” was the case of large antlers of the bull elk. These antlers developed as an instrument for attracting mates rather than warding off predators. Big antlers would suggest a greater likelihood of the bull elk to marginalize the elks with smaller antlers. Over time, the bull elks with small antlers would die off since they would not be able to produce offspring and pass their traits. Thus, the bull elks would largely comprise of those elks with large antlers. However, the flip side is that large antlers compromise mobility and thus are more likely to be attacked by predators. Although the individual elk with large antler might succeed to stay around over time, it is also true that the compromised mobility associated with large antlers would overall hurt the propagation of the species as a collective group. We will return to this very important concept later. The interests of individual animals were often profoundly in conflict with the broader interests of their own species. Corresponding to the development of the natural selection mechanism is the introduction of the concept of the “survival of the fittest” which was introduced by Herbert Spencer. One often uses natural selection and survival of the fittest interchangeable and that is plain wrong. Natural selection never claims that the species that will emerge is the strongest, the fastest, the largest, etc.: it simply claims that the species will be the fittest, namely it will evolve in a manner best suited for the environment in which it resides. Put it another way: survival of the most sympathetic is perhaps more applicable. Organisms that are more sympathetic and caring and work in harmony with the exigencies of an environment that is largely outside of their control would likely succeed and thrive.

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We will digress into the world of business. A common conception that is widely discussed is that businesses must position toward a winner-take-all strategy – especially, in industries that have very high entry costs. Once these businesses entrench themselves in the space, the next immediate initiative would be to literally launch a full-frontal assault involving huge investments to capture the mind and the wallet of the customer. Peter Thiel says – Competition is for losers. If you want to create and capture lasting value, look to build a monopoly.” Once that is built, it would be hard to displace!

NEffect

Scaling the organization intentionally is key to long-term success. There are a number of factors that contribute toward developing scale and thus establishing a strong footing in the particular markets. We are listing some of the key factors below:

  1. Barriers to entry: Some organizations have natural cost prohibitive barriers to entry like utility companies or automobile plants. They require large investments. On the other hand, organizations can themselves influence and erect huge barriers to entry even though the barriers did not exist. Organizations would massively invest in infrastructure, distribution, customer acquisition and retention, brand and public relations. Organizations that are able to rapidly do this at a massive scale would be the ones that is expected to exercise their leverage over a big consumption base well into the future.
  2. Multi-sided platform impacts: The value of information across multiple subsystems: company, supplier, customer, government increases disproportionately as it expands. We had earlier noted that if cities expand by 100%, then there is increasing innovating and goods that generate 115% -the concept of super-linear scaling. As more nodes are introduced into the system and a better infrastructure is created to support communication and exchange between the nodes, the more entrenched the business becomes. And interestingly, the business grows at a sub-linear scale – namely, it consumes less and less resources in proportion to its growth. Hence, we see the large unicorn valuation among companies where investors and market makers place calculated bets on investments of colossal magnitudes. The magnitude of such investments is relatively a recent event, and this is largely driven by the advances in technology that connect all stakeholders.
  3. Investment in learning: To manage scale is to also be selective of information that a system receives and how the information is processed internally. In addition, how is this information relayed to the external system or environment. This requires massive investment in areas like machine learning, artificial intelligence, big data, enabling increased computational power, development of new learning algorithms, etc. This means that organizations have to align infrastructure and capability while also working with external environments through public relations, lobbying groups and policymakers to chaperone a comprehensive and a very complex hard-to-replicate learning organism.
  4. Investment in brand: Brand personifies the value attributes of an organization. One connects brand to customer experience and perception of the organization’s product. To manage scale and grow, organizations must invest in brand: to capture increased mindshare of the consumer. In complexity science terms, the internal systems are shaped to emit powerful signals to the external environment and urge a response. Brand and learning work together to allow a harmonic growth of an internal system in the context of its immediate environment.

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However, one must revert to the science of complexity to understand the long-term challenges of a winner-take-all mechanism. We have already seen the example that what is good for the individual bull-elk might not be the best for the species in the long-term. We see that super-linear scaling systems also emits significant negative by-products. Thus, the question that we need to ask is whether the organizations are paradoxically cultivating their own seeds of destruction in their ambitions of pursuing scale and market entrenchment.

Managing Scale

I think the most difficult thing had been scaling the infrastructure. Trying to support the response we had received from our users and the number of people that were interested in using the software.
– Shawn Fanning

Froude’s number? It is defined as the square of the ship’s velocity divided by its length and multiplied by the acceleration caused by gravity. So why are we introducing ships in this chapter? As I have done before, I am liberally standing on the shoulder of the giant, Geoffrey West, and borrowing from his account on the importance of the Froude’s number and the practical implications. Since ships are subject to turbulence, using a small model that works in a simulated turbulent environment might not work when we manufacture a large ship that is facing the ebbs and troughs of a finicky ocean. The workings and impact of turbulence is very complex, and at scale it becomes even more complex. Froude’s key contribution was to figure out a mathematical pathway of how to efficiently and effectively scale from a small model to a practical object. He did that by using a ratio as the common denominator. Mr. West provides an example that hits home: How fast does a 10-foot-long ship have to move to mimic the motion of a 700-foot-long ship moving at 20 knots. If they are to have the same Froude number (that is, the same value of the square of their velocity divided by their length), then the velocity has to scale as the square root of their lengths. The ratio of the square root of their lengths is the the square of 700 feet of the ship/10 feet of the model ship which turns out to be the square of 70.  For the 10-foot model to mimic the motion of a large ship, it must move at the speed of 20 knots/ square of 70 or 2.5 knots. The Froude number is still widely used across many fields today to bridge small scale and large-scale thinking. Although this number applies to physical systems, the notion that adaptive systems can be similarly bridged through appropriate mathematical equations. Unfortunately, because of the increased number of variables impacting adaptive systems and all of these variables working and learning from one another, the task of establishing a Froude number becomes diminishingly small.

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The other concept that has gained wide attention is the science of allometry. Allometry essentially states that as size increases, then the form of the object would change. Allometric scaling governs all complex physical and adaptive systems. So the question is whether there are some universal laws or mathematics that can be used to enable us to better understand or predict scale impacts. Let us extend this thinking a bit further. If sizes influence form and form constitute all sub-physical elements, then it would stand to reason that a universal law or a set of equations can provide deep explanatory powers on scale and systems. One needs to bear in mind that even what one might consider a universal law might be true within finite observations and boundaries. In other words, if there are observations that fall outside of those boundaries, one is forced into resetting our belief in the universal law or to frame a new paradigm to cover these exigencies. I mention this because as we seek to understand business and global grand challenges considering the existence of complexity, scale, chaos and seeming disorder – we might also want to embrace multiple laws or formulations working at different hierarchies and different data sets to arrive at satisficing solutions to the problems that we want to wrestle with.

Physics and mathematics allow a qualitatively high degree of predictability. One can craft models across different scales to make a sensible approach on how to design for scale. If you were to design a prototype using a 3D printer and decide to scale that prototype a 100X, there are mathematical scalar components that are factored into the mechanics to allow for some sort of equivalence which would ultimately lead to the final product fulfilling its functional purpose in a complex physical system. But how does one manage scale in light of those complex adaptive systems that emerge due to human interactions, evolution of organization, uncertainty of the future, and dynamic rules that could rapidly impact the direction of a company?

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Is scale a single measure? Or is it a continuum? In our activities, we intentionally or unintentionally invoke scale concepts. What is the most efficient scale to measure an outcome, so we can make good policy decisions, how do we apply our learning from one scale to a system that operates on another scale and how do we assess how sets of phenomena operate at different scales, spatially and temporally, and how they impact one another? Now the most interesting question: Is scale polymorphous? Does the word scale have different meanings in different contexts? When we talk about microbiology, we are operating at micro-scales. When we talk at a very macro level, our scales are huge. In business, we regard scale with respect to how efficiently we grow. In one way, it is a measure but for the following discussion, we will interpret scale as non-linear growth expending fewer and fewer resources to support that growth as a ratio.

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As we had discussed previously, complex adaptive systems self-organize over time. They arrive at some steady state outcome without active intervention. In fact, the active intervention might lead to unintended consequences that might even spell doom for the system that is being influenced. So as an organization scales, it is important to keep this notion of rapid self-organization in mind which will inform us to make or not make certain decisions from a central or top-down perspective. In other words, part of managing scale successfully is to not manage it at a coarse-grained level.

 

The second element of successfully managing scale is to understand the constraints that prevent scale. There is an entire chapter dedicated to the theory of constraints which sheds light on why this is a fundamental process management technique that increases the pace of the system. But for our purposes in this section, we will summarize as follows: every system as it grows have constraints. It is important to understand the constraints because these constraints slow the system: the bottlenecks have to be removed. And once one constraint is removed, then one comes across another constraint. The system is a chain of events and it is imperative that all of these events are identified. The weakest links harangue the systems and these weakest links have to be either cleared or resourced to enable the system to scale. It is a continuous process of observation and tweaking the results with the established knowledge that the demons of uncertainty and variability can reset the entire process and one might have to start again. Despite that fact, constraint management is an effective method to negotiate and manage scale.

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The third element is devising the appropriate organization architecture. As one projects into the future, management might be inclined toward developing and investing in the architecture early to accommodate the scale. Overinvestment in the architecture might not be efficient. As mentioned, cities and social systems that grow 100% require 85% investment in infrastructure: in other words, systems grow on a sublinear scale from an infrastructure perspective. How does management of scale arrive at the 85%? It is nigh impossible, but it is important to reserve that concept since it informs management to architect the infrastructure cautiously. Large investments upfront could be a waste or could slow the system down: alternative, investments that are postponed a little too late can also impact the system adversely.

 

The fourth element of managing scale is to focus your lens of opportunity. In macroecology, we can arrive at certain conclusions when we regard the system from a distance versus very closely. We can subsume our understanding into one big bucket called climate change and then we figure out different ways to manage the complexity that causes the climate change by invoking certain policies and incentives at a macro level. However, if we go closer, we might decide to target a very specific contributor to climate change – namely, fossil fuels. The theory follows that to manage the dynamic complexity and scale of climate impact – it would be best to address a major factor which, in this case, would be fossil fuels. The equivalence of this in a natural business setting would be to establish and focus the strategy for scale in a niche vertical or a relatively narrower set of opportunities. Even though we are working in the web of complex adaptive systems, we might devise strategies to directionally manage the business within the framework of complex physical systems where we have an understanding of the slight variations of initial state and the realization that the final outcome might be broad but yet bounded for intentional management.

managing scale

The final element is the management of initial states. Complex physical systems are governed by variation in initial states. Perturbation of these initial states can lead to a wide divergence of outcomes, albeit bounded within a certain frame of reference. It is difficult perhaps to gauge all the interactions that might occur from a starting point to the outcome, although we agree that a few adjustments like decentralization of decision making, constraint management, optimal organization structure and narrowing the playing field would be helpful.

Internal versus External Scale

This article discusses internal and external complexity before we tee up a more detailed discussion on internal versus external scale. This chapter acknowledges that complex adaptive systems have inherent internal and external complexities which are not additive. The impact of these complexities is exponential. Hence, we have to sift through our understanding and perhaps even review the salient aspects of complexity science which have already been covered in relatively more detail in earlier chapter. However, revisiting complexity science is important, and we will often revisit this across other blog posts to really hit home the fundamental concepts and its practical implications as it relates to management and solving challenges at a business or even a grander social scale.

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A complex system is a part of a larger environment. It is a safe to say that the larger environment is more complex than the system itself. But for the complex system to work, it needs to depend upon a certain level of predictability and regularity between the impact of initial state and the events associated with it or the interaction of the variables in the system itself. Note that I am covering both – complex physical systems and complex adaptive systems in this discussion. A system within an environment has an important attribute: it serves as a receptor to signals of external variables of the environment that impact the system. The system will either process that signal or discard the signal which is largely based on what the system is trying to achieve. We will dedicate an entire article on system engineering and thinking later, but the uber point is that a system exists to serve a definite purpose. All systems are dependent on resources and exhibits a certain capacity to process information. Hence, a system will try to extract as many regularities as possible to enable a predictable dynamic in an efficient manner to fulfill its higher-level purpose.

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Let us understand external complexities. We can interchangeably use the word environmental complexity as well.  External complexity represents physical, cultural, social, and technological elements that are intertwined. These environments beleaguered with its own grades of complexity acts as a mold to affect operating systems that are mere artifacts. If operating systems can fit well within the mold, then there is a measure of fitness or harmony that arises between an internal complexity and external complexity. This is the root of dynamic adaptation. When external environments are very complex, that means that there are a lot of variables at play and thus, an internal system has to process more information in order to survive. So how the internal system will react to external systems is important and they key bridge between those two systems is in learning. Does the system learn and improve outcomes on account of continuous learning and does it continually modify its existing form and functional objectives as it learns from external complexity? How is the feedback loop monitored and managed when one deals with internal and external complexities? The environment generates random problems and challenges and the internal system has to accept or discard these problems and then establish a process to distribute the problems among its agents to efficiently solve those problems that it hopes to solve for. There is always a mechanism at work which tries to align the internal complexity with external complexity since it is widely believed that the ability to efficiently align the systems is the key to maintaining a relatively competitive edge or intentionally making progress in solving a set of important challenges.

Internal complexity are sub-elements that interact and are constituents of a system that resides within the larger context of an external complex system or the environment. Internal complexity arises based on the number of variables in the system, the hierarchical complexity of the variables, the internal capabilities of information pass-through between the levels and the variables, and finally how it learns from the external environment. There are five dimensions of complexity: interdependence, diversity of system elements, unpredictability and ambiguity, the rate of dynamic mobility and adaptability, and the capability of the agents to process information and their individual channel capacities.

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If we are discussing scale management, we need to ask a fundamental question. What is scale in the context of complex systems? Why do we manage for scale? How does management for scale advance us toward a meaningful outcome? How does scale compute in internal and external complex systems? What do we expect to see if we have managed for scale well? What does the future bode for us if we assume that we have optimized for scale and that is the key objective function that we have to pursue?