Neil Chilson is senior fellow for technology and innovation at the Charles Koch Institute. This excerpt is adapted from his forthcoming book, Getting out of control: Emergent leadership in a complex world, releasing this Spring.
We are surrounded by emergent order — order that occurs without design or control — on all sides. From ant colonies, to brains, to cities, to economies, emergent order is everywhere. Yet we rarely think about this order. Instead, many people think our complex modern world is primarily the result of someone else’s design and control. And increasingly we worry that the world is growing too complex to be under anyone’s control.
The world is certainly getting more connected and complex. International trade, communications, and travel have all skyrocketed. Encountering ideas outside our own experience is as easy as picking up a smartphone. The volume of human knowledge means we rely on experts and specialists more than ever in human history.
Faced with this complexity, we’ve become obsessed with getting control of ourselves, our jobs, and our families. CEOs want to control their companies; politicians and policymakers want to control the economy. Recently, everyone is trying to figure out what to do to get the COVID-19 pandemic “under control.”
We want control because humans have a limited ability to comprehend complexity. For most of human history, the average human never encountered more than 100 other humans. As a species of tribal animals, we are evolutionarily attuned to be comfortable in small groups. Scientists estimate human brains can only keep track of about 150 relationships, and only five of them closely. Historically, our small groups were led by a tribal leader who was like us, shared our perspective and experiences, and therefore could be expected to make decisions with our interests in mind. Therefore, many of us are comfortable leaving hard decisions to leaders. We’re built that way. And when chaos arises, we expect our leaders to restore order.
Likewise, in science and politics we often look to experts to design a solution to complex problems. We expect there to be a right answer, and for the smartest people to be able to find it. When we see a big problem, we want a big solution. We depend on the people in charge to solve problems that are beyond us, and we’re disappointed when they fail.
No one is more attracted to the power of design than the smartest and most successful among us. When a politician or a regulator is faced with a problem, few can say, “This is too big a problem for me to fix.” Instead, they boldly fire volleys of legislation and volumes of complex rules. They assemble coalitions to negotiate language that few will read and fewer will follow. But it’s not just politicians who fall victim to the illusion of control. Business-people, leaders, and celebrities who experience some success often see their success as evidence that they should control things, both in the areas where they have had success and other, unrelated fields.
The most ambitious and arrogant of these world builders tried to wipe out history and redesign society from the top down. But most schemes to gain control are more modest. They merely accrete like rusty sand in the joints of society. The effect can be deadly, but it is slower and therefore harder to recognize.
All this destruction begins with leaders misunderstanding how complex complex things are. The problem is not just that people don’t know enough about what they are dealing with. It is that in such complex systems, side effects can swamp intended effects, even for seemingly small changes.
I have been fascinated with the strange characteristics of complex systems from my early teens. I read two books in those years which shaped the course of my life. The first was James Gleick’s Chaos. This pop-science book explored the then-nascent computer science research into complex systems. It was from that book that I learned about fractals, nonlinear systems, and other complex yet ordered systems. The other was Metamagical Themas by Douglas Hofstadter, which talked about memes, strange attractors, self-referential systems, and complexity theory.
My teenage-self lacked the math skills to absorb all the ideas in these books. But what did soak into my core was an important idea:
Beautifully ordered systems can and regularly do emerge from the independent actions of molecules or cells or people, without anyone being in charge. And in fact, seemingly small interventions into a complex system could send it spinning out of control and even destroy it.
These concepts were fascinating to me, but didn’t seem to have much practical use in my job as a computer scientist and software developer.
But when I became a lawyer, I repeatedly saw smart leaders try to design rules to govern complex systems with little humility about what success they should expect. Laws and regulations often looked like a series of software patches, each applied to correct the unintended consequences of the previous patch — and each applied with full confidence that this time the system was tamed and controlled.
This pushed me toward what I’ll call an “Emergent Mindset”: the realization that there can be order without control. This is the framework I use to explain, understand, and deal with complexity as a leader at home, in my community, and at work.
The mindset centers on six basic principles.
- Expect complicated results even from simple actions.
- Don’t try to control what you cannot.
- Be humble.
- Push decisions down close to the important information.
- You can make the world better by making yourself better.
- Learn from constraints — and choose them well.
These principles are not easy to adopt. They require a perspective that at once embraces our autonomy as leaders and admits limitations as part of something bigger. But they offer a framework to productively grapple with the increased complexity of the world and of our lives.
Emergent order is a counterintuitive concept to most people. We want control. But in an age of increasing complexity, our hope lies not in gaining control, but on relying on emergent order to help us understand ourselves and our world better, and to react appropriately.
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