We’re going to have to reassess our expectations of repeating the same actions, because of complexity.

This is a very common quote, I see frequently cited (and frequently misattributed)

Insanity is repeating the same actions and expecting different results.Variously attributed to Franklin, Einstein and others

It’s easy to see the appeal of this thinking, but really, its applicability in the domain of business, software development and particularly the intersection of the two, is highly limited.

It indicates what philosopher Alicia Juarrero calls Science 1.0 — the kind of mechanistic thinking that drove the 19th and 20th centuries, and embedded top down, command and control structures to address essentially unchanging problems.

The kind of thinking that identified efficiency as the problem and optimisation of the parts towards a perfectible stable equilibrium as the solution.

The problem with this is that that set of assumptions simply does not apply in complex environments, whether they are business, software development or the intersection between the two which is complex at both end. And organisations that are used to Science 1.0 thinking are discovering this, to their distress and consternation. Even the US military:

Team of Teams, by Stanley McChrystal

[Al Quaeda in Iraq] was an organization native to the information-rich, densely interconnected world of the twenty-first century. It operated in ways that diverged radically from those we thought of as “correct” and “effective.” But it worked.Gen. Stanley McChrystal
For a soldier trained at West Point as an engineer, the idea that a problem has different solutions on different days was fundamentally disturbing. Yet that was the case.Gen. Stanley McChrystal

That second quote is significant: while we may have some degree of stability in contextually applied good practices, we simply cannot expect to have identical outcomes every time, with the resultant needs of:

  1. We need to be constantly paying attention to what’s really happening, with extremely short lag times from events to sensing.
  2. Experience of the territory is highly valuable, but more so when it is experience of multiple environments, to ensure awareness that unpredictable change happens.
  3. While a starting playbook is extremely useful, it will always need some degree of adaptation to bring success, and this adaptation will need to be ongoing: there is no perfectible form that is reachable, even in a single given environment.

But perhaps the greatest need of all is to rewrite that quote about madness: Madness is repeating the same actions and expecting the same results.

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CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 Redefining Madness beyond Science 1.0 by Martin Burns is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

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