On the complexity of change: It’s time — now

Hey, Friend,

Time, doesn’t it fly … I have not been wasting any time. I had no time. There simply never was a time when I could sit down and write. Perhaps, it wasn’t the right time. A time to gather stones? A time to cast them them out?

Time!
Chris, I am always reading your comments immediately. In a timely manner, so to speak. And then I think, I should pick up on this, I should pick up on that. And then time goes by … In both my brief exploration of the word herd immunity and your comment to that post, we talked about our schedules. Yes, schedule, time management, the passing of time, the future, … have been on my mind for some time.

Time: Just now, I have learned that the word schedule is related to the German noun Zettel and the Spanish cédula, simply meaning a sheet of paper, a note sheet. How do I know, you ask. Well, I looked it up at https://www.etymonline.com/word/schedule. I learned that schedule only came to mean a sheet with a timetable in the nineteenth century. Does this mean only with the beginning industrialization schedules became more important? Are they important to you? How important is it to be on time? Is it important to you to do something in time?

Time? What is that anyway—time? Is it ambiguous?
We measure. Each hour has 60 minutes. Exactly. Each day—only 24 hours.
We plan: I will work on this blog post today. We will finish the project next week. School begins next month.
We experience: This took forever. That went by so quickly.
We remember: Has it really been five months that we have not been “at work”? That we sat in our offices, with door knocks and phone rings punctuating the day? That a mostly electronic leash propelled us from one place to the next, spending – too much? – time with different people? Waiting for a meeting to end, so that we could go somewhere and do something else?
We dream: What will happen in November? How will it be next year? When will the time come?

Time is all these. It crawls. It stands still. It passes. Time is nonlinear. What does that that even mean? I am not sure we know, even after millennia have gone by. We do know what time is not.

Time is not homogeneous. In good times and in bad. Everything changes all the time.

Time does not live in a clock nor in a calendar. Like light does not live in the kitchen fridge. The time comes and the time has gone.

Time is not periodical. There is no sinus curve, no going in circles. Not even around the clock.

Time does not have a schedule. It does not have an agenda. Time does not have to be anywhere. So, time can never be on time.

Time changes and is the same all the time.

Chris, I am sure you remember my writing on the Complexity of Change. Timely to pick it up, I thought. Don’t complex systems change over time? We often feel the times are changing. It looks like it, when watch the hands of a clock, hear the bells ringing, or turn a calendar leaf. But, hey!? The clock, the bell tones, and the calendar are changing. The time is not. The time is always now. It was now yesterday. It will be now tomorrow. What changes between yesterday and tomorrow, I believe, we can influence a little — now.

That’s all we do with a schedule: we write a little note on a, perhaps virtual, sheet for when the time comes to know a little better what to do — now. Time management sounds like one is managing time. You know, I have tried … and failed … miserably. So, I think I better do something – in my time, with my time. Now.

Time is up.

On the complexity of change: What is happening with COVID-19?

A colleague cancelled her trip to Italy. She knows the country well and is not afraid of going there. She is afraid of being quarantined, when coming back home to the US. The conference of the American Association for Applied Linguistics with 1,400 registrants in Denver, CO, at the end of March has been cancelled “in light of developments over the last few days” (AAAL, March 9, 2020). Schools are closed in some parts of the world; universities in the US are preparing to take all their courses online until the end of the semester.

Is there a way to make sense of this change, these changes, the angst? I believe there is.

If you have read previous posts or our Team page, then you know that I am neither a medical professional nor a specialist in public health. I watch the international news, care about my own health and that of others, also in other parts of the world, like traveling and (international) get-togethers. And generally, I prefer when I can follow through on a planned course of action. I had planned to buy tickets for the two trips my wife and I want to take in the summer months last week. I didn’t.

How can we make some sense of this complex phenomenon? From what I have read thus far, COVID-19 has not yet been traced back to its initial conditions yet. Why would this be good to know? Generally speaking, because these variables – however minute – are there from the beginning and are often influential at all iterations through which the complex process goes. Unfortunately, misunderstanding initial conditions can lead some people to make decisions that at least appear to be unnecessary. I read recently that the sales of Corona beer are down because of the “namesake” Corona virus; apparently fewer people feel like going to a Chinese restaurant in the US because of the belief that the virus was spread from China.

Not only because I had intended to write about nonlinearity – as an important characteristic of a complex adaptive system – in this post, I will say that understanding the complex global spread of a nasty virus as a nonlinear process is of utmost importance.

Quickly in a nutshell, what does that mean for each one of us?

  • Small changes are likely to have a disproportionately large effect. Washing my hands, avoiding to touch my face, and in general being very careful with hygiene, can and will have the effect that I am better protected from catching the virus and that, if more and more people follow such guidelines (and other measures are taken in concert), the spread of COVID-19 can be contained.
  • Consider the context, learn about the many components, facets, and variables of this complex phenomenon. How is the virus spreading and impacting people in different places of this world? What can its many nonlinear trajectories tell us about its nature? From the little I understand COVID-19 is a relative of the SARS and the MERS viruses. In 2003, I lived in a city close to Toronto, and Toronto was one of the metropolitan centers affected by SARS at the time. SARS had a lower spread worldwide than COVID-19 has already had until now. On the other hand, it had a higher fatality rate (of almost 10%). It passed in about six months. Even with my very limited expertise in things medical this gives me a more rational perspective. It gives me hope and it gives me compassion for other people, people with different fears, people quarantined on a large cruise ship, people with responsibility for large gatherings such as a university or an international conference.
  • Accept the complexity. This acceptance mainly leads me to NOT do something. I do not expect a linear change. Just because we do A – whatever A is – just because the government implements measure A – whatever A is – just because the WHO issues guideline A – whatever A is – I do not expect a direct – linear – outcome B. No single step, measure, cancellation, … will change the course of COVID-19 singlehandedly. All the measures by many different people, bodies, and institutions, our preparedness of making considered – often small – changes, and our mindfulness that continued observation and analysis of the system – of the development of COVID-19 worldwide – are and will be necessary.

Change has the best chance of being sustainable, if it is considered and iterative.

I realize that I quickly glossed over the intricacies of nonlinearity. Well, this gives me a chance to write another post on the topic in the near future and do a better job.

On the complexity of change: Complex and adaptive

Let’s forget about changing anything. Just for a little while. Let’s just think about complexity. Something complex. A complex process. Got it? Why is this process complex? What makes it complex?

First answers are simple: a process with more than one actor is more complex than a process with just one actor. But it is not just the participants. Many natural or industrial processes are complex, and they do not necessarily even have participants (humans) that act in them. So, there can also be many components. And if that were not enough, more often than not there are many variables. You remember these variables from math classes in school.

x + 7 = y

This is a nice linear equation – and thus not complex. For each x there is exactly one y, which can be calculated, if you know how do do this sort of thing.

Think about the complex process you have in mind. It does not just have one variable, one x, that changes or can be changed. Most processes in life, in society, in biology, in physics, in nature, … in most places where we care to look, have more than one variable. More than one (in)observable trait, characteristic, or feature that can change or that can be changed.

Now that’s OK, you say. We just have to look at a few more things. Right! Problems arise when there are very many, often too many, to always keep our eyes on, to look out for, to consider. And not only that. Each of these variables, each x, if you like, does not just have one dependent y. More than one variable can depend on each changing variable.

I am changing the period of time I use for exercise in the morning. I am changing time t. Time t influences my fitness level; I am increasing muscle mass and flexibility. Because of the increased muscle mass, my metabolism changes during the day. I feel better, I am more agile, I move more and quicker, burning more calories than on the days prior. And by increasing time t for exercise, I am reducing time r for reading … Twitter, my favorite book, a newspaper, or some emails. I am also reducing time c for cooking, so I will have to have my lunch prepared the evening before or will have to go to the cafeteria to buy something to eat.

You get the point.

A complex phenomenon does not just have many variables. Each of these variables potentially interacts – metaphorically speaking bounces off and changes – one or more other variables. Overstating just a little bit: each of the many variables changes all the time, in concert and against each other.

Did I say at the beginning: Let’s forget about change for a little while? Impossible. We quickly returned to the concept of change. Change is part of complexity and complexity is part of change. We cannot – and should not – consider one without the other. [Maybe just for a quick thought experiment, or if we are really tired in the evening.]

What are the consequences? Complex phenomena are in constant flux, change constantly. That’s why we often talk about complex dynamic systems. Variables interact with one another, components interact, actors (participants) interact. In these many continuous or iterative interactions, each variable, component, and actor are also prone to change. They co-adapt. Especially for social systems, we often use the label complex adaptive systems (CAS). And if we want to understand change better, be able to influence it a little bit, or just deal with it, it is useful to look at some of the characteristics of complex adaptive systems.

  • CAS are likely to be on a nonlinear trajectory, which means a change I put in does not necessarily result in a proportionate change to come out.
  • CAS are sensitive to initial conditions. The variables, however small they might be, that were there from the very beginning are most likely to have had a relatively large impact on the whole process, simply because they have been around for long enough.
  • CAS have attractor states – states they are more often and more likely in. They also have repeller states, states which they could reach theoretically but never or hardly ever reach.
  • CAS are likely to reach an equilibrium – like a standstill, change is very close to zero – if no new energy enters the system.

I am glad I got this out of the way. And maybe so are you. Remember that I said it is often useful to apply a theoretical lens to gain a better understanding of a problem? At some stage I had to introduce the lens. In subsequent posts, I will look at these characteristics of complex adaptive systems, one by one. And I will show for each one what role their understanding can play in solving personal problems, problems at work, in social interactions, or just around the house.

The neat thing with these CAS is that there has been a lot of research that tried to figure out how to get a better handle on the complexity. And I am as sure as one can be that what we learn about the ever-changing complexity will come in handy almost every day, when solving problems. Whether this is in your personal life, when making leadership decisions, or simply when you are trying to fix something that you believe needs fixing.

And to finish off, if you’d rather read the texts on the Complexity of Change in one possible order … a table of contents is emerging.

This was an empty post

About a week ago, I took some time and built a little skeleton of blog posts to set up the functionality of our site. Chris and I began the Panta Rhei site for two reasons (I believe; he will correct me soon if I am wrong):

  • We believe that with our joint expertise, experience, and education, we have a couple of things to share, things that we hope others might find helpful.  We have always shared them with family, colleagues, students, friends, … at conferences, in the classroom, in meetings and informal conversations. We want to reach out more and do this more systematically.
  • At this stage, our thoughts are on different phenomena, challenges, fields, prospects, questions, … It is a whole complex – a bit like a nourishing, comforting stew – of ideas, insights, lived experiences, learned theorems. Difficult to digest and even more difficult to name the ingredients and teach the recipe. So initially, we will use this blog to bring clarity and system to our thoughts. To stay in the picture: we don’t expect anybody to want our stew exactly the way we have had it simmering for many years. We will use the stew as a solid base for a variety of soups, soups that are not only nourishing but also presentable and transparent. In other words, each blog entry will bring more clarity to one thought. And we decided to do this “live” and publish each blog post immediately or soon after writing.

We are hoping to get your reactions, your comments, your questions, …

This post has been tagged with all 36 tags we currently have for this blog to give you an idea what this is all gonna be about. A little more in this vein in the next post.