June 2015

Sensitive dependence on initial conditions


The defining idea of chaos is that there are some systems – chaotic systems − in which even minuscule uncertainties in measurements of initial positions and momentum can result in huge errors in long-term predictions of these quantities. This is known as sensitive dependence on initial conditions. (Mitchell, 2009, p.20)

One of the first things to know about the social aspects of the future (distinct from physics or biology) is that the future emerges unevenly through the process of social contact, discourse and agreements between people about the various influences, which shape our collective realities (Gergen, 1994). We do this through the conversations we have, the questions we ask, and the choices we make.

Secondly, those realities unfold in a process of diffusion (or distribution) over time and geography, beginning in one place and then moving to another; appearing in one realm and then in another (Rogers, 2003). Innovation adoption is an entirely social phenomenon.

And, thirdly, during times of uncertainty or disequilibrium, when we go in search of the future, we touch those realities; we may not see them now, but they are there, simply awaiting our discovery. As we take those new possibilities in and make them our own, we are in effect, consciously or not, steering towards an emergent future.

Contrary to our fiercely held beliefs or desires about “plans”, the future is emergent rather than controllable or mechanistically achieved. Personally, I have learned to find this delightful and even desirable. The way life self-organizes and correlates is infinitely more coherent and creative than any plan I could make. It does require throwing out those master “plans” and learning to navigate with intention, taking smaller steps, and watching intently for feedback.

This way of moving is in contrast to the typical iron-will whereby we force conformity to our “plan”. This is a difficult notion to swallow, particularly for those of us tasked with huge public works projects, or time sensitive program execution. It is more like an art form than a science to both envision and plan, and also let go. When we direct through will, the greater the complexity, the more likely we will find ourselves sweating bullets hoping to metaphorically bend light rather than listening intently to feedback and adjusting accordingly.

For example, as business owners, program, and project managers, typically, we create work streams and then manage to our plans. In relatively contained environments, this may work. Yet, as they say, “if you want to make God laugh, show her your plan”. To hear God laughing hysterically let’s consider information technology (IT) projects. The conventional wisdom suggests that 85% of IT projects fail. This is an interesting and devastatingly expensive phenomenon. Imagine saying about your own life, “85% of what I intend and invest my time and money in, fails”.

To me this suggests a colossal problem with trying to bend light with our will and not encouraging and integrating feedback as a tool for self or system-correction. An 85% failure rate across all IT projects indicates an epidemic of organizational structures that neither listen, nor learn.

Deep listening, whether to information, to group energy, or to our bodies, is an essential aspect of learning to navigate in the emergent future. This is not to say that society cannot be manufactured or engineered through planning and architecture, rather it speaks to the notion that attending to the conditions that allow the emergent future to come to life can be cultivated and that it requires all of our senses, not just our brains. This is not a mechanistic view of design; it is the intentional application of consciousness and awareness to the process of change through design.