Open Thinkering


TB871: Only variety can absorb variety

Note: this is a post reflecting on one of the modules of my MSc in Systems Thinking in Practice. You can see all of the related posts in this category

Heavy duty shock absorbers. Black and white photograph.

Imagine a typical classroom full of young people. The amount of variety that’s possible within this environment is almost infinite. During my teaching career, I’ve certainly taught in schools where this was the case, and managing behaviour was a challenge. But I’ve also taught in schools where expectations were clear, and classroom environments were very orderly. That is to say, the amount of variety was much lower.

A system for teaching and learning, therefore, needs to limit the amount of variety within the environment. That’s the job of the teacher, in terms of choosing material at the right level, diversity, and interest for the students. It’s the job of the school management to ensure an appropriate level of discipline and reward to ensure that lessons aren’t unduly disrupted, and it’s the job of students to limit their behaviours to those that are going to be conducive to learning.

(Note: I’m not advocating for the above, merely describing a state of affairs with which we are all reasonably familiar.)

Good teachers are able to respond spontaneously to events. That is to say they have a wide repetoire of responses. The same is true of successful organisations: they need to be able to handle variations within their environment. Just as a good teacher isn’t one that just treats every student the same way, so successful organisations aren’t ones that treat their environment as fixed and unchanging.

Viable systems, then, don’t just reduce the amount of variability in their environment, they increase the range of responses to the challenges raised by it. As John Naughton explains:

In colloquial terms Ashby’s Law has come to be understood as a simple proposition: if a system is to be able to deal successfully with the diversity of challenges that its environment produces, then it needs to have a repertoire of responses which is (at least) as nuanced as the problems thrown up by the environment. So a viable system is one that can handle the variability of its environment. Or, as Ashby put it, only variety can absorb variety.

Until comparatively recently, organizations coped with environmental challenges mainly by measures to reduce the variety with which they had to cope. Mass production, for example, reduced the variety of its environment by limiting the range of choice available to consumers: product standardization was essentially an extrapolation of Henry Ford’s slogan that customers could have the Model T in any color so long as it was black. But the rise of the Internet has made variety-reduction increasingly difficult. By any metric that one chooses—numbers of users and publishers, density of interactions between agents, pace of change, to name just three—our contemporary information ecosystem is orders of magnitude more complex than it was forty years ago. And its variety, in Ashby’s terms, has increased in proportion to its complexity. Given that variety reduction seems unfeasible in this new situation, the implication is that many of our organizations and social systems—ones that have evolved to cope with much lower levels of variety—are no longer viable. For them, the path back to viability requires that they have to find ways of increasing their variety. And the big question is whether—and how—they can do it.

(Naughton, 2017)

So, applying this to my own life and the variety of activities I undertook yesterday (Activity 3.11), I reduced variability by setting distinct hours for work and leisure time. I also responded to emails and professional communication via LinkedIn and elsewhere in ‘batches’ which is another way to reduce variability. I went for a run before my work day started so that this did not interrupt the flow of the day.

And then, of course, there are things I have automated. For example, I noticed that a payment to my accountant automatically left my business account yesterday. Social media posts I had scheduled went live. A calendar notification popped up reminding me to do certain tasks. Not having to remember to do things is another way of reducing variability.

It’s a delicate balance, I find. I’m a big fan of routines such as going to bed and getting up at the same time, doing different forms of exercise on particular days. ‘Coupling’ particular tasks such as eating breakfast and doing Duolingo. But too much of it feels very constraining. I guess this is the point: as your environment changes, the amount of variability in your life needs to change until you’ve got a harmonious routine. The same is true of organisations.

This is another opportunity to trot out my favourite Clay Shirky quote: “current optimization is long-term anachronism” (Shirky, 2014). This is true for individuals, and it’s true for organisations.


Photo by streetsh

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