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What are complex adaptive systems?

You're probably already in a complex adaptive system. You may as well learn how to be effective in one.

NATHAN ROSENBERG: You're a person that works in a large organization and large organizations are complex adaptive systems. You're a person whose company goes into the marketplace every day and markets are complex adaptive systems. When we deal with organizations as if they're linear we get frustrated because the rules, the principles, of operating in a linear system are completely different than the rules for dealing with complexity. By viewing your company, by viewing your organization, through the lens of a complex adaptive system, it's going to give you some access to effectiveness.

Defining Complex Adaptive Systems

Let's be clear about what is a complex adaptive system. What's a system? A system is a set of interacting parts that act as a whole. They have a purpose, they have a design function, and there's rules that allow those parts to operate together to fulfill that design function. Where complex comes in is the parts, technical term called agents, but the parts of the system make choices and it's because of those choices that creates complexity. Now there's no real definition of complexity, there's no agreed on definition of complexity, but complexity is generally thought to be: there's so many moving parts moving in so many different directions that it's impossible to predict behavior. So for a simple definition, complex means impossible to predict behavior. And then the final part is adaptive. Adaptive systems come into existence—if they're not adaptive then they don't come into existence, they don't form as a system—and then if they're not adaptive they don't continue to exist because why? As the environment changes, they have to change. So if the system isn't adaptive it goes out of existence when the environment changes, but adaptive systems adapt to their environment. They change meeting the environment. And by the way, as they change they also change the environment.

So a complex adaptive system is a system that has multiple parts that can make choices of various kinds, and by virtue of those choices the system adapts. Now, at the individual level why that's important to you and me is the choices we make, even though we're parts of large companies, the choices we make impact the total system. The choices your company makes impacts the marketplace.

Understanding the Property of Emergence

In complex adaptive systems there is no cause/effect. There's not rules, there's not laws that you have to follow. Why? Because it's emergence—this quality, this property of emergence—means that it's constantly changing, it's constantly adapting. And what you start to see is patterns, there's patterns in the behavior of the system and that's really what you're looking for, is how do I leverage those patterns and how do I influence those patterns. The other thing you have to remember in complex adaptive systems, which you really have to remember in life, is there's no control. As Helen Keller said, "Life is a daring adventure or nothing." And in complex adaptive systems there's not control. There's influence, there's shaping, but there's not control.

Emergence Questions for Organizations

By looking through the lens of complex adaptive systems, it gives you immediate access to three practical applications for your organization. So let's start with strategy. If you view the marketplace as something static and you view your company as something static, you come up with a particular kind of strategy. Well, that kind of strategy thinking went out the window in 2007/2008. And now what we think is if you put the conditions in place for the results that you want, the results will emerge. In other words, what choices, if made now, will ensure that success will emerge over time?

Secondly, emergent structures. Can we get out of the way of the self-organization principle of complex adaptive systems? Most people come to work every day, they want to make a difference, they want to contribute, they want to get the job done. And the structures that we put in place oftentimes actually impede them from getting the job done. If we view our organizations as complex adaptive systems, we can allow for the organization to actually organize itself. That is to say, if you put people in work teams and those people are aligned on the result to be produced, they will actually organize themselves and they'll organize the work to make it happen.

Finally, let's talk about systems and putting systems in place that allow for the effectiveness of the organizations, systems that actually pull for effectiveness. Can we create systems that are built to adapt to coevolve with the users and the environment? Most of the systems in your company are actually historical artifacts. They were put in place in the past either to resolve a problem or to take advantage of a success. If we view the organization, however, as a complex adaptive system, we begin to bring design thinking to put in place systems that allow the results that we're looking for to emerge, and those systems are fluid. That is to say, those systems actually adapt as they impact the environment. And that's another lever point by viewing your organization as a complex adaptive system. It's a complex adaptive system in a marketplace, which is also a complex adaptive system. And they begin to dance together, giving you and your company a competitive advantage.

Influencing the System

To be effective in dealing with a complex adaptive system, you want to take advantage of this property of emergence. You want to leverage and get things going in the direction they're already going. So for example, asking yourself the question: how can I shape and change the conditions to which the agents are responding or reacting? You might also ask yourself: how can I shift the local rules by which the agents are acting? And then finally: how can I shift how it occurs, how it looks to the agents, and what they're responding to in the environment? So consider your answers to those questions to be possibilities. View it as an experiment. Implement one answer, observe, see what happens. If the system moves in the direction that you want, add more. If the system doesn't move in the direction you want, try another alternative. And as you observe keenly, you'll begin to see the conditions that you're committed to emerge. Remember, there's no control with complex adaptive systems. And the other thing to remember is that you're an independent agent in the system and your choices make a difference.

  • Organizations aren't just organizations—they're complex adaptive systems. Thinking of them this way, says Nathan Rosenberg, founding partner of management consulting firm Insigniam, can give your organization a competitive advantage.
  • In complex adaptive systems, there is no cause and effect. Rules, or laws, have no causal efficacy. The system is constantly changing and adapting. But patterns in behaviors and relationships do begin to emerge.
  • You cannot control a complex adaptive system but you can influence it. You're an independent agent in the system and your choices make a difference.

How accountability at work can transform your organization

If you don't practice accountability at work you're letting the formula for success slip right through your hands.

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  • What is accountability? It's a tool for improving performance and, once its potential is thoroughly understood, it can be leveraged at scale in any team or organization.
  • In this lesson for leaders, managers, and individuals, Shideh Sedgh Bina, a founding partner of Insigniam and the editor-in-chief of IQ Insigniam Quarterly, explains why it is so crucial to success.
  • Learn to recognize the mindset of accountable versus unaccountable people, then use Shideh's guided exercise as a template for your next post-project accountability analysis—whether that project was a success or it fell short, it's equally important to do the reckoning.

Giant whale sharks have teeth on their eyeballs

The ocean's largest shark relies on vision more than previously believed.

Photo by Koichi Kamoshida/Getty Images
Surprising Science
  • Japanese researchers discovered that the whale shark has "tiny teeth"—dermal denticles—protecting its eyes from abrasion.
  • They also found the shark is able to retract its eyeball into the eye socket.
  • Their research confirms that this giant fish relies on vision more than previously believed.
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A massive star has mysteriously vanished, confusing astronomers

A gigantic star makes off during an eight-year gap in observations.

Image source: ESO/L. Calçada
Surprising Science
  • The massive star in the Kinsman Dwarf Galaxy seems to have disappeared between 2011 and 2019.
  • It's likely that it erupted, but could it have collapsed into a black hole without a supernova?
  • Maybe it's still there, but much less luminous and/or covered by dust.

A "very massive star" in the Kinman Dwarf galaxy caught the attention of astronomers in the early years of the 2000s: It seemed to be reaching a late-ish chapter in its life story and offered a rare chance to observe the death of a large star in a region low in metallicity. However, by the time scientists had the chance to turn the European Southern Observatory's (ESO) Very Large Telescope (VLT) in Paranal, Chile back around to it in 2019 — it's not a slow-turner, just an in-demand device — it was utterly gone without a trace. But how?

The two leading theories about what happened are that either it's still there, still erupting its way through its death throes, with less luminosity and perhaps obscured by dust, or it just up and collapsed into a black hole without going through a supernova stage. "If true, this would be the first direct detection of such a monster star ending its life in this manner," says Andrew Allan of Trinity College Dublin, Ireland, leader of the observation team whose study is published in Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

So, em...

Between astronomers' last look in 2011 and 2019 is a large enough interval of time for something to happen. Not that 2001 (when it was first observed) or 2019 have much meaning, since we're always watching the past out there and the Kinman Dwarf Galaxy is 75 million light years away. We often think of cosmic events as slow-moving phenomena because so often their follow-on effects are massive and unfold to us over time. But things happen just as fast big as small. The number of things that happened in the first 10 millionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a second after the Big Bang, for example, is insane.

In any event, the Kinsman Dwarf Galaxy, or PHL 293B, is far way, too far for astronomers to directly observe its stars. Their presence can be inferred from spectroscopic signatures — specifically, PHL 293B between 2001 and 2011 consistently featured strong signatures of hydrogen that indicated the presence of a massive "luminous blue variable" (LBV) star about 2.5 times more brilliant than our Sun. Astronomers suspect that some very large stars may spend their final years as LBVs.

Though LBVs are known to experience radical shifts in spectra and brightness, they reliably leave specific traces that help confirm their ongoing presence. In 2019 the hydrogen signatures, and such traces, were gone. Allan says, "It would be highly unusual for such a massive star to disappear without producing a bright supernova explosion."

The Kinsman Dwarf Galaxy, or PHL 293B, is one of the most metal-poor galaxies known. Explosive, massive, Wolf-Rayet stars are seldom seen in such environments — NASA refers to such stars as those that "live fast, die hard." Red supergiants are also rare to low Z environments. The now-missing star was looked to as a rare opportunity to observe a massive star's late stages in such an environment.

Celestial sleuthing

In August 2019, the team pointed the four eight-meter telescopes of ESO's ESPRESSO array simultaneously toward the LBV's former location: nothing. They also gave the VLT's X-shooter instrument a shot a few months later: also nothing.

Still pursuing the missing star, the scientists acquired access to older data for comparison to what they already felt they knew. "The ESO Science Archive Facility enabled us to find and use data of the same object obtained in 2002 and 2009," says Andrea Mehner, an ESO staff member who worked on the study. "The comparison of the 2002 high-resolution UVES spectra with our observations obtained in 2019 with ESO's newest high-resolution spectrograph ESPRESSO was especially revealing, from both an astronomical and an instrumentation point of view."

Examination of this data suggested that the LBV may have indeed been winding up to a grand final sometime after 2011.

Team member Jose Groh, also of Trinity College, says "We may have detected one of the most massive stars of the local Universe going gently into the night. Our discovery would not have been made without using the powerful ESO 8-meter telescopes, their unique instrumentation, and the prompt access to those capabilities following the recent agreement of Ireland to join ESO."

Combining the 2019 data with contemporaneous Hubble Space Telescope (HST) imagery leaves the authors of the reports with the sense that "the LBV was in an eruptive state at least between 2001 and 2011, which then ended, and may have been followed by a collapse into a massive BH without the production of an SN. This scenario is consistent with the available HST and ground-based photometry."

Or...

A star collapsing into a black hole without a supernova would be a rare event, and that argues against the idea. The paper also notes that we may simply have missed the star's supernova during the eight-year observation gap.

LBVs are known to be highly unstable, so the star dropping to a state of less luminosity or producing a dust cover would be much more in the realm of expected behavior.

Says the paper: "A combination of a slightly reduced luminosity and a thick dusty shell could result in the star being obscured. While the lack of variability between the 2009 and 2019 near-infrared continuum from our X-shooter spectra eliminates the possibility of formation of hot dust (⪆1500 K), mid-infrared observations are necessary to rule out a slowly expanding cooler dust shell."

The authors of the report are pretty confident the star experienced a dramatic eruption after 2011. Beyond that, though:

"Based on our observations and models, we suggest that PHL 293B hosted an LBV with an eruption that ended sometime after 2011. This could have been followed by
(1) a surviving star or
(2) a collapse of the LBV to a BH [black hole] without the production of a bright SN, but possibly with a weak transient."

NASA releases first sounds ever captured on Mars

On Friday, NASA's InSight Mars lander captured and transmitted historic audio from the red planet.

NASA
Surprising Science
  • The audio captured by the lander is of Martian winds blowing at an estimated 10 to 15 mph.
  • It was taken by the InSight Mars lander, which is designed to help scientists learn more about the formation of rocky planets, and possibly discover liquid water on Mars.
  • Microphones are essentially an "extra sense" that scientists can use during experiments on other planets.
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Changing the way we grade students could trigger a wave of innovation

How students apply what they've learned is more important than a letter or number grade.

Future of Learning
  • Schools are places where learning happens, but how much of what students learn there matters? "Almost all of our learning happens through experience and very little of it actually happens in these kinds of organized, contrived, constrained environments," argues Will Richardson, co-founder of The Big Questions Institute and one of the world's leading edupreneurs.
  • There is a shift starting, Richardson says, in terms of how we look at grading and assessments and how they have traditionally dictated students' futures. Consortiums like Mastery.com are pushing back on the idea that what students know can be reflected in numbers and letter grades.
  • One of the crucial steps in changing how things are done is first changing the narratives. Students should be assessed on how they can apply what they've learned, not scored based on what they know.
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