Dissolution of problems in organisations (Human Complex Adaptive Systems) – part 3/4 – the theory behind

Today’s blog post will go through the theory, the “why” behind the first step, the dissolution part of “A systematic approach to a systemic learning”. Welcome.

There are different ways to describe a Complex Adaptive System, a CAS, which is a system that has an unpredictable emergent behaviour. One common description is to describe it as containing agents with interrelationships.

Another way to describe a system is; “A set of principles according to which something is done” [1]. The only valid basis of principles for any system (with unspecified complexity), is the principles and laws of science, which in the continuation of this blog post series, is meant with principles. This means that if the principles are not followed, the system will be a dysfunctional system. This second definition is also in line with the first description above, they are only on different abstraction levels. The second definition with principles built on science, is on the lowest abstraction level for any system. The fulfilment of the principles is an enabling constraint, in a positive sense, for the interactions and the interrelationships between the agents, of the first definition.

With organisations in focus, this definition is appropriate for Dissolution of problems in human complex adaptive systems, like organisations, which not only are doing something, they also have a certain purpose*, for example the context of developing a product. It is important to point out that the purpose also induces a way of working that all people in the organisation try to follow, in order to achieve the purpose of the organisation. It also induces that if the way of working is not following the set of principles properly, the organisation will be dysfunctional. But, since we humans are adaptive, so we will try to achieve the purpose anyhow. This means that it is impossible, even from within the system itself, to differ a well-functional system from a dysfunctional system just by looking at the emergent behaviour of the system, until it is too late, due to the adaptiveness of the complex adaptive system itself.

We can frankly not just look at the emergent behaviour of our organisation, to judge how functional it is in order to achieve its purpose, since any complex adaptive system, well-functional or not, will have an unpredictable emergent behaviour. And if the organisation is a dysfunctional organisation according to above, we will for sure not understand it, due to all the symptoms and consequences emanating from non-fulfilled principles, creating a mess – a system of problems, as Ackoff stated. This in turn can lead to that we are demanding (only looking for) complex solutions for complex adaptive systems, just because the emergent behaviour looks complex, instead of focusing on the fulfilment of the principles the organisation need to follow to achieve the purpose.

To only look for complex solutions seems even more easily done regarding human systems, where for example Dave Snowden often refers to the difference between animal and human systems and talks about the individual human ability of intention, identity and intuition [2]. He argues that this makes us humans very different from animal systems, which he summarizes in the term anthro-complexity (anthropology and complexity). Of course, he is right about that animal and human systems are very different. But, let us not forget that we humans set purposes (intentionally) for our organisations as described above, as well as that we humans also have built-in principles in our DNA, in the same ways as for all other species, even if they are very different. The Cobra Effect is a good example of a human system that sets a purpose, of getting rid of the cobras, which was a good intention, but where the solution with the bounties was sub-optimal and only sub-optimising.

Let us take an example where we many decades ago treated the solution as complex. But, 1987, Reynolds [3] modelled flocking behaviour with a simple set of rules, that made random individual agents to behave like flocking or shoaling. Every bird is different from another bird, but they all have built-in principles for the ability of flocking in their DNA, making this needed collaboration possible. The flocking is the purpose (the output) of the complex adaptive system (the flock of birds), but where the emergent behaviour of the flock of birds for achieving the flocking, never in advance can be predicted.

We humans also have collaboration principles in our DNA, in the same way as the principles that are making ant hills, shoal of fish and flock of birds possible. Our collaboration principles have been built over millions of years of co-evolution with nature. Originally the purpose for these collaboration principles evolved to be able to collaborate within families and tribes, to collectively protect us from other species, to get food, protect us from the weather, etc. These principles are also what’s in our DNA today, having the same validity also for our collaboration within bigger entities like organisations and cities among others. And the best part is that we already have understood the needed science already regarding these principles, like Dunbar’s number, Miller’s law, etc. This means that we do not need to invent any new science about us humans by digging deeper within the corresponding disciplines We just need to follow the principles when we transdisciplinary make our integrated** way of working (HOW), otherwise we are risking only new panaceas, a term that Ackoff frequently used. The HOW means a synthesis**, or a cohesiveness**, a systems design** of the organisation that will fulfil the purposes. Our HOW is a context dependent way of working for our organisations, that depends on the complexity and uncertainty level, where for example all kind of product development is a complex context. This means that the context dependent purpose of the organisation, produce or product develop, gives the complexity level and together with the uncertainty level of the product (WHAT), directly will affect the HOW. That also means that WHAT to do is not as important as the uncertainty level of the WHAT.

Of course, we humans are not ants (Snowden), fish or birds. One main difference between us humans and (most of the) animals, is that animals obey under these built-in collaboration principles, but we in many cases are not. This means that we can make an organisational structure that we as humans cannot cope with, even though we are adaptive. Another important aspect is that the birds do not know the purposes of any of the principles (rules) they obey under, for example the principles supporting the need for flocking, or other collaboration principles in their DNA that they need to obey.

Another big difference between (most of the) animals and humans as mentioned above, is that we humans can set a purpose for a context, a contextual purpose. That means that we understand what we are doing and why we are doing it in that context, and we can also handle many different contexts by changing identity depending on context, family mother or CEO in a big organisation. But even though we humans can set our contextual purposes ourselves in an organisation, we still need to set up the way of working so the principles in our DNA for collaboration are fulfilled. If we do that, we have a big chance to fulfil our purposes and achieve also a flourishing organisation, even do we can never predict the emergent behaviour of our organisation, our complex adaptive system, due to the world around us are changing.

But we humans are sometimes ignorant to these human collaboration principles, which may be due to lack of knowledge or anti-intellectualism or both, even though science since a long time, have found out about them. This regards both the human principles we indirectly ‘obey’ under (need to fulfil) for a flourishing collaboration, as well as any other ‘non-human’ scientific principle that we definitely obey under, logic, mathematics, physics, etc. Ignorance of the latter means not only big problems with the output from the organisation regarding our products and services. It also means that even if we from start are following the principles for human collaboration in an organisation, the continuation of this ignorance of ‘non-human’ principles requires horrendous master suppression techniques. Which of course lead to neglection of respect for people in our organisation, a very important principle to live up to. This will even in the short run generate consequences due to bad human behaviour and in the long-run the culture of the organisation will deteriorate, the organisation will for sure have a walk in the dark. This ignorance also means that we 30 years after Ackoff started to criticize panaceas, still continue trying to make them, claiming that their manufacturing-like solutions this time are universal. And this is happening even though we from an organisation’s purpose easily can judge if we are in the Complex domain or for the problem to solve.

Now it is time to come back to our organisations and the presented definition of a system. If we use this definition of a system for our organisation, that means that we; 1) need to find that set of principles 2) make an organisation with our people doing their activities, using a way of working that is following these principles, so we can achieve the purpose with our organisation.

So, what is the purpose of our organisation? For its survival, our organisation’s purpose is to fulfil the need of today’s market, in which context the organisation is operating, for example, manufacturing, service, product development, etc. And our organisation consists of people and activities. As earlier blog posts stated, this gives us our context independent (context-fee) system start definition; “People that interact to solve activities with interdependencies, for a particular purpose”, see this blog post for details. From this start organisation definition, we then have thoroughly explored the evolution of the market and organisations in this blog post series, and how they are deeply intertwined. We have then looked into the already existing science (also context independent) about activities and people, which is our evolutionary prerequisites and added these principles to our organisational definition. Depending on the more complex context the organisation is operating in, the more principles will be “activated”. By only adding the minimum needed principles to our organisational definition, we are not only sure that our people can follow the system definition of our organisation, but also that the organisation built is not more complicated than necessary. And with our set of principles needed, we can then build our flourishing organisation.

But, if we already have an existing way of working in our organisation, it would be neat to know how to fix the organisational way of working problems, without risk for sub-optimisation. And as stated in the first blog post in this series about sub-optimisation, trimming of silos or Agile teams will only be sub-optimising. This trimming is therefore together with situational assessments, according to complexity theory regarding unintended consequences, a very difficult and time-consuming way forward with no guaranteed results, only extremely high risks.

So, if an organisation’s way of working, does not fulfil one or more of our principles, it for sure means problems within the organisation. This will be either by not handling the activities correct, having bad structure etc., or we have principles that our people cannot follow due to violation of their cognitive abilities. That means that the non-fulfilment of a principle is a root cause, which means that if we negate our principles, we have all the possible root causes to problems within the organisation. This also means that if we fix one of the root causes, we will automatically fulfil the corresponding principle, which means that we have changed our systems design of our organisation and thereby dissolved our organisational problems. And according to the definition of a system above, it means that we are redesigning the system, and not interfering with it by trying to do the impossible, solve symptoms and consequences. We will simply get rid of the current unintended consequences, originating from the past non-fulfilment of the principles.

This is the difference between dissolve and solve*** in organisations; when we dissolve something, we act systemically to get something we want (i.e. get rid of symptoms and consequences within a system), but when we solve something (the symptoms and consequences) directly, we act anti-systemically [4] (a word that Dr. Russell Ackoff often used) and try to get rid of something (the symptoms and consequences) we don’t want. Quoting three times Russell Ackoff : “Improvement must be focused on what you want, and not on what you don’t want!”, or here [5]: “… not to get rid of what you don’t want. Defect management is not an effective mode of management.” and the final quote about using design when possible [6]: “Dissolution involves design. Solution involves research. We don’t recognize design as a way of dealing with problems, that’s superior even to research.”

Another way to put it, is that dissolution means that we will redesign our existing system, to a new system to achieve the purposes of our organisation (what we want) and where the problem (symptoms’ chains of the root cause(s), that we don’t want) no longer exists. That is coherent with the science about complex systems, which states that a problem within a system cannot be isolated, modelled or solved.

We can also look at our organisation as a black box, with permeable boarders to make it resilient to customer and environmental changes, doing problem-solving of activities within its domain and the different contexts for its parts. By viewing our organisation as a black box, we do not interfere with it, which makes it easier to understand why dissolution of problems does work. The input to our black box is our way of working built on the “principles”, what to achieve (the product or service) as a requirements specification, and our healthy people. As output comes the fulfilled purposes of the organisation; the correct product on time, to the right cost and quality and our people still healthy.

Let us take an example. If we change the input for example the “principles” for the way of working, removing “Respect for people”, we will receive another output (the effect), most probably a bad one regarding the product, apart from that we now of course also have unhealthy people, at least long-term. Of course, we do not want to make our system worse, we need to make it better, but this was only an example of the important aspect that we have not violated some theory of complexity theory. Because we have not interfered with the system, not modelled it, not measured it, not needed to make a situational assessment, not sub-optimised it, just changed one of the inputs (cause) regarding what principles to follow (in this case to the worse) and waited for the output (effect).

Since we have not opened this black box, it also means that we do not need to know the vocabulary within the different disciplines within it. This goes especially for complexity theory that has a very difficult vocabulary, and needed within its own domain of course, when we dive into its depth, which we do not need to do in this case. But, as stated in this series of blog posts about a needed common vocabulary on the top level when we are working transdisciplinary, we do not need to know the details of the different disciplines, but we definitely need a common language to even be able to talk on the top level between the disciplines. Once again we can refer to Ackoff’s quote [5] “Dissolution involves design. Solution involves research. We don’t recognize design as a way of dealing with problems, that’s superior even to research.”, since the design of our organisation is trans-disciplinary, and do not require in-depth research. If we do not have a common vocabulary on the top level of the disciplines, the risk is that even though the different disciplines’ experts are sitting in the same room, they can only work multi-disciplinary. This will make them more of advisers, which is very common in traditional silo organisations, rather than actively taking part in the transdisciplinary problem-solving in order to achieve a new synthesis, or new cohesiveness (Juarrero). Or as Snowden puts it; “In effect we have a basic mistake, the belief that a collection of specialists is as good a generalist.” [7]. Unfortunately, stopping at only multi-disciplinary work and not reaching the necessary transdisciplinary work, is very common for agile frameworks at scale on the top level of the organisation and system product as well.

And as we already know, there are many organisational ways of working problems in today’s silo or Agile organisations that seems that they cannot be explained. But with our set of principles, we can easily judge, that the panaceas of today trying to cure symptoms, are clearly sub-optimising, trying the impossible of solving symptoms. These panaceas are also anti-systemic and this is handled in this series of blog posts, referring to the great work of Dr. Ackoff, who talked about panaceas already three decades ago. Sometimes the organisations themselves during a transformation of their way of working, understand that something else need to be done, and takes care of the real root causes and in this way takes control of their transformation. Unfortunately, many organisations do not understand that the method or framework they are transforming to are not interested in solving the root causes of the organisation. These frameworks instead (indirectly) states that they are context independent (universal), which means that they therefore simply only are trying to solve symptoms in a complex context, by the implementation of artifacts. Sadly, since the approach is bottom-up and take considerably long time to implement, the organisations then continue with their transformations despite big problems, putting more good money on the bad money. Removing people’s skills, experience and common sense from the problem-solving picture and way of working and replace that with artifacts, is what the panaceas of today are pushing for. By doing that, the panaceas try to show that they are universal and that the solution is always as easy as in a manufacturing context and that a simple course make the participant to an expert as well. But, in a complex context like product development, where scale makes it more even more complex, solutions, thinking and principles from a manufacturing context will never work.

To be able to understand all these organisational symptoms, is where our Prefilled Root Cause Analysis Map comes in, see this blog post for the details. Here the structure of it can be seen:

If we negate also the purpose (the blue box at the top) of our organisation, we have the complete problem description to why an organisation is not working. And by asking why, why, why, from this problem description, the symptoms and consequences (the white ones) can be found, which finally ends up in one or more root causes (the red ones).

Now it is not only obvious that the panaceas cannot work, it is easy to see as well, and now we also know what to do about it. Only acceptance of this naked truth, is the hard part. Very, very hard, to be honest. This yields especially for service organisations like banks, insurance companies and governments, that recently moved from buying systems, to instead making the systems themselves, meaning that they are moving from an easy context to a complex context. These organisations are very vulnerable, making them easily accepting panaceas, since the managers and top management do not understand complexity. We therefore need a very easy and straightforward way of looking at problem-solving and learning in our organisations. “A systematic approach to systemic learning”, with its first step of always collecting the problems within the organisation and try to find the root causes, is a true eye-opener for the entanglement of problems in an organisation and how we in most cases can dissolve this entanglement, or “a mess – a system of problems” as Ackoff would have stated it.

This was all for today, next blog post in this series discusses why starting with finding root causes for caused problems, is so important, and not interchangeable with the use of inductive or abductive approaches instead, as well as a wrap-up of the series.

C u soon again.


*don’t mix up the word purpose itself with setting the purpose for an organisation. All organisations have a purpose, which means that only the word itself is context independent, which means that when we are setting the purpose for our organisation, we are also choosing the context for the organisation. For every context it means that a certain amount (subset) of the organisational principles will be activated???hänvisa till principerna, and when complexity increases, the more of them. In a complex context, the whole set of the organisational principles need to be followed, to achieve a flourishing organisation. The word purpose itself, is often referred to as a context-free constraint, for example according to Juarrero [8].

**integration, synthesis, cohesiveness (Juarrero [8]), systems design, meaning all the same thing, we simply integrate to a way of working, but even if we follow the principles, we are exploitational, meaning that it most probably will not be perfect the first time we try, but of course to than when we ignore (the existence of) the principles.

***a problem (symptom) in a product, can of course mean that a part is broken when the systems design is correct, so we need to analyse, find, fix or change the broken part. That is the big difference between products and organisations, since in organisations we have us humans, so we can only dissolve our problems top-down by changing the systems design of the organisation.



[1] Lexico. System. Link copied 2021-01-03.
System | Definition of System by Oxford Dictionary on Lexico.com also meaning of System

[2] Snowden, Dave. Blog post. Link copied 2021-07-06.
Humans are not ants, agents or angels – Cognitive Edge (cognitive-edge.com)

[3] Reynolds Craig W. (1987) ‘Flocks, herds, and schools: a distributed behavioural model’, Computer Graphics 21(4), July: 25–34.

[4] Ackoff, Russell Lincoln. Article. Link copied 2018-12-15.

[5] Ackoff, Russell Lincoln. Presentation film, at 10.55min.
Link copied 2018-11-21.

[6] Ackoff, Russell Lincoln. Presentation film, at 1.02.31 min.
Link copied 2018-11-15.

[7] Snowden, Dave. Blog post. Link copied 2020-12-12.
“Its not science until I can mathematize it …” – Cognitive Edge (cognitive-edge.com)

[8] Juarrero, Alicia. Presentation from the Lean WX conference, April 2015.
Constraints that Enable Innovation – Alicia Juarrero on Vimeo


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