The Adaptive Cycle and The Aging of Complex Systems

The four phases of the adaptive cycle-reorganization, growth, conservation, release
The Adaptive Cycle

You can find more versions of the Adaptive Cycle at

Corruption (as a system characteristic, not a moral failing) is inevitable in the life history of complex systems. I am using corruption as a pointer to the use of resources for purposes other than the apparent or first use by the system.

The increased diversity in the use of system generated and stored resources can start anytime in the life cycle of a complex system, but will begin during the conservation phase because of the trade-offs that arise from putting aside resources for some purpose other than the core mission.

It’s easier to think about the phases if we pull them out of the cycle and examine each  in turn:

  1. Reorganization: Imagine an open field, soon after a large fire has burnt over it and seems to have rendered it empty of life. Although it might seem that you could create any system in this emptiness, that isn’t true. The system that begins to form will be one populated by the fast and the furious species. These “pioneers” (start-ups, leaders, initiators, etc.) will be able to quickly grab the remaining scattered resources and use them for rapid growth and turnover.
  2. Growth: While pioneers burn out quickly, they are also preparing the field for longer term residents by mobilizing resources into a form that can more easily be used by others, and, with their individual death, returning their own personal resources to the common evolution of the field. The replacements for the pioneers can last longer, can use the residue of the pioneers, and can create novel relationships that expand their reach not only into the area outside the field but more deeply within the field.
  3. Conservation: At some point, a complex system has enough resources to prevent simple disintegration because of random events. Also, the system is producing resources that last longer, and that don’t disappear after use (say, financial skills).It is at this point that corruption becomes a critical part of the complex system’s dynamic. A simple example is the creation of cash reserves in a small advocacy nonprofit. These reserves serve the obvious purpose of buffering the organization against the unpredictability of outside events, i.e., short-term funding problems, unanticipated opportunities, loss of grants, and so on. But, the reality is that these reserves could just as easily be used for the core mission of the organization. Of course, once the reserves are gone, the organization is once again subject to the political and financial weather.

    This decision point or the tradeoff of short-term mission use and long-term stability produces an easily exploited ground for the expansion of system and personal corruption. A general model for both is the use by staff, managers, and stockholders (or stakeholders) of the organization’s resources for the gratification of their individual desires.  This is so common that most of us tend to think of it as a normal expected part of a corporate or organizational function. It is the reality that this small corruption won’t destroy the system. Think of it as opportunity corruption.

    System corruption tends to expand over time, and while it may stall when someone important is punished for it, the underlying causes of it continue to drive it forward.
    In addition, the resources required for repair and maintenance of the complex system increases over time. Think about your own experience as you have aged. This too is driven and the dynamic can’t be eliminated, though, of course, it can be reduced through careful planning and actions that, nonetheless, suck up resources that might be used for other purposes.

  4. Release: As long as the complex system is growing, it can tolerate a large amount of system corruption. But no complex system grows forever. Because the corrupt dynamics in the system are relatively separated from the larger dynamic of the whole, they are able to ignore the contraction in growth drivers better than the core dynamics. The effect of this (protecting the corruption instead of the system as a whole), is to make the corruption more stable than the core, and an increasing part of the dynamic of the whole. Much like cancer.When the combination of lost growth drivers and expanding corruption reaches a certain point, the complex system disintegrates in whole or in part, and its resources are released into the larger environment for use by unknown pioneers. And the cycle begins again.

Note that this dynamic is inevitable in the long run. You can modify its impact, but you can’t stop it. You can, of course, still think about changing this dynamic by embracing the possibility of beginning again when the cycle has “prepared” that possibility.

But we all deceive ourselves about how easy or possible it is to change an existing complex system that is late in its conservation phase. Say, our current society.

Next Post: The Delusions of System Change



Author: disabilitynorm

hubby2jill, 2dogs, advocate45+yrs, change strategist, trainer, geezer, pa2Loree, gndpa2Nevin

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