Complexity Demonstrations PDF Print E-mail
Written by Bob Janes   
Tuesday, 04 September 2007 06:31

In 2001, just a day or so after 9/11 I was in Pakistan presenting workshops for the British Council on 'Organisational Complexity'. As a part of my preparation I sought out some practical demonstrations of complexity that I could use with a group. Here are some of the ideas I received.

Tim Joy suggested that I gather together the various suggestions made last week of quick "attention grabbers" which demonstrate the need for taking account of complex behaviour. The following is the list I have here, and I apologise in advance if I have left any out.

Best wishes,
Niall Palfreyman.

1. Clyde Jenkins, communicated by Bill Harris:

Take a raw egg that's sitting in a container.

Ask one person to pick it up with their two index (first) fingers and move it from one container to another.

Then ask a pair of people to do it, with one person contributing the left hand and the other the right.

Without good feedback between them, they'll have a lot of fun (?!) trying.

2. Andy Ford:

I no longer have Andy's original text for this, so I'll have to paraphrase.

He told the story of James Gleick giving a presentation on complexity at Santa Fe. When he walked onto the stage, he was given a big round of applause, for which he expressed his thanks and pleasure, and asked if the audience could please repeat the applause, but this time in unison. Without any further instructions, the audience proceeded to start clapping and drew themselves together into unison. James Gleick then stated that this is a form of schooling behaviour, where complexity is handle without the need for an explicit leader, and he then used this as the starting point for his lecture.

3. Ashley Woolmore

I'm not sure that this is the sort of thing that you are looking for - and may be a bit of a squeeze in the time that you have. I use it for groups of about 10-30 depending on the space available.

Essentially it is a demonstration based on CAS and simple rules generating complex behaviour. It is also about the consequence of change in one part of the system having an impact across the whole.

What I ask people to do is to stand on their feet. They then decide to fix on two other people in the group. They keep this decision to themselves.

The task for the group is to position themselves equidistant from the two people that they have picked. They have to move around in order to do this.

The experience of trying to keep your distance is fun - a bit like herding cats!

After a period of time the group will become stationary (at least it has so far every time that I have done this demo...). The seemingly random and difficult to predict moving about of people can be used as an analogy for a complex system.

A powerful second step for this demo is then to ask one person only to change their selected 'target-people'. Everyone else remains with their old ones. This person will likely then have to move, which sets a chain reaction of people moving. The impact of one change has a consequence for the whole system.

The whole thing can take just a few minutes. In some situations I have led a discussion and de-brief which can take half-an-hour.

4. Bo Newman:

If you want to extend this experiment (and have the time, the group's interest/commitment, and have someone with sufficient background in complexity theory to lead the de-brief ) try the following:

1) Repeat the process, but this time, without the rest of the group knowing, instruct one person to change their focus as soon as they feel they have satisfied the initial requirement. In other words, as soon as that person feels they are equal distant from both of their "targets," they are to drop one of their targets and pick another. And they are to continue to do so each time they feel they have satisfied the equidistance rule.

(2) Repeat the process again, but this time have 2 people changing, then 3 people, etc.

(3) Don't pre-select people to continuously change their targets, but rather allow everyone to change their target if they feel the target is acting erratic (moving around too much or with no consistent pattern) and trying to achieve their goal (equidistance from two selected targets) would be too difficult, or take too long. When the people feel they personally have achieved the goal, have them raise their hand and keep it up as long as they feel they continue to satisfy the goal condition.

5. Bill Braun:

Some additional variations that might be interesting. A large space is probably required.

One, have the group divide into four subgroups, each in the corner of a room. Have one person leave their corner and walk (where and how fast is up to them). "Release" another person, then another, etc. until everyone is "free".

Two, when the group stops have someone at the edge of the group reposition her/himself to the opposite side of the group by walking through the center of the group. Then by walking around the perimeter of the group.

Three, when the group stops have two people (from anywhere) leave the group and move in the direction of their choice. See if the group splits, remains cohesive or passes through stages with same or different results.

Compare/contrast the collective behaviour of the group based on different starting conditions and different "course corrections".

6. Andrew Campona

I was filled with compassion for the request you have made, reminding me of many years of fear at not knowing how to come to school again with a head empty of the 'correct answers' and since I have seen no other suggestion arise from other backgrounds so far. This exercise though cares not if it is first, last or somewhere in the middle since its essence, may I dare say, sits somewhere outside the normal boundaries of time, which is possibly it's most powerful and 'foggy' or 'fuzzy' attraction.

Exemplar 2001 and no copyright ;-) but please acknowledge poor author.

15-20 Person Workshop over one day with a mixture of delegates in senior executive and management positions mostly in large UK brand leader Plc's

Brief and Structure.

Open ... but the day's work should be aimed so that all would in some way experience or manifest a strong awareness though the experience of others a self driven personal or even collective transformation.

One Exercise we created.

Loosely based on a principle of emergence by Kevin Kelly, start simple and keep the recursive actions going by layering, layering and layering.


Each participant was given an appropriately small brush and ink and a block of 100 post-it notes. The brief was: "Fill each square with semi-continuous or continuous marks trying to touch at least one of the edges, do as many as possible in 45 minutes to an hour…(and do not think about it to much ;-)" At the end of the session we would group and each individual artist assemble the many patches on a board in any way they liked according to intuition. The variety of outcomes was very rich learning. The most interesting for me concerned two people, both of whom went physically away from the others and worked at the opposite corners of the room to each other. I was very concerned about one delegate who was making marks with very diluted ink by bashing the papers with a rock! I left her to it. In the other corner this chap was working away at creating what looked like a forested landscape or mindscape. We assembled and noticed certain patterns and symbolic possibilities, the usual archetypes. As I turned round to look at one image board 'upside down' on the floor I happened to refocus my gaze and I saw that the guy who I'd left with his 'virtual forest' had in fact finished by creating the whole thing on the window and he'd left it there, like a stained glass design in yellow and black - perhaps a bit like those Matisse designs. We all walked over to the, his, corner. Then there on the floor below it was a 'virtual' stream of 'Post-it' notes that the 'bashing' delegate had put in front of this 'forest image' now stuck onto the window.

Thoughts were...

They had co-created a complex and highly original 'art work' in the form of an installation in 3 dimensions. I asked what was the underlying motive or idea that brought about this unexpected motif. It turned out that one had felt that he did not want to take his 'whole' work off the glass and then have to put it 'differently' onto boards. So, he just left it there, somewhat worried I would moan possibly hoping it would get ignored. His co-creator in speaking to him allied herself with his feelings about the 'imposing' of this unwanted change and unbeknown to me she had put her own 'Post-it' sheets looking like a rippled mountain stream (the 'rockbashing' had creased the sheets so as to create an even stronger impression of chuckling and rippling water) in order to protect it :-)

They seemed to be literally following the 'landscape metaphor' (they were not so far as I know aware of the terms 'fitness peaks' and 'flat playing fields' beloved as per Lissackian terms). So for me, suddenly there were a lot of the metaphors of and around complexity that had emerged out of their own happening. What then ensued among us all was the shared question, how does one keep such beautiful, elegant and co-operative 'sites specific' work whole? Perhaps that can be the basis for a 'conflict resolution' workshop. My own semi-educated bet is that you can't, despite Heidegger's thinkings … so the capacity to 'recreate' anew in each moment is of the essence.

The exercise to prepare this day was very simple...close your eyes and think of one word that sums up the journey so facilitation was the last of nearly ten over four months, then keep it inside you all day. At the end of the day after some more exercises and dialogue I asked them to make one painting together, one sheet, one mark each. Then at last I asked them to write in colours the words they had thought of at the start. The words all revolved around 'caring' and 'love', the actual word 'love' appeared four times.

As Mr. Confucius might have remarked, The Master said, You gave them no corners and they came back with four ... this is good ditch digger, I used to give them one and expect back three. Truly less is more.

(OK Bob I made that last paragraph up ;-)

And, who was it who wrote to the effect that, It is a strange thing that the very table at which we meet is also that which divides us? And one for At de Lange, Why did Liebenitze say that, "A table was really a colony of souls"

Love and Best wishes,
Andrew Campona

Source - from a posting or postings at the Learning Organisation list, the last is here

Last Updated on Wednesday, 12 December 2007 14:35