(P3): The Ways of System Aging

The Panarchy Cycle; alpha-phase: reorganization; K-phase: Conservation & Stabilization; Omega phase: Release (Creative Destruction); r-phase: Exploitation & Growth; Poverty Trap (between alpha-phase and r-phase) is Insufficient Resources for starting New Growth; Rigidity Trap (between K-Phase and Omega Phase) is Holding on to old systems.

All CAS age (even us, or maybe especially us!). But seeing aging in a CAS is tough. There is no perfect way to describe such aging, but it is important to grasp the general contours if we are to make use of aging in our advocacy efforts.

Aging applies as much to advocacy organizations as it does to those organizations that are the object of our advocacy efforts. The Panarchy Cycle is as good a model for system aging as I have found, and it has the advantage of “face” usefulness. It is important to remember in what follows, however, that we can do things to change the path of aging in a CAS. If I develop arthritis in my hip and it gets bad enough, I might have a hip replacement surgery. If that surgery is successful, the quality of my life can take a huge leap. But, despite the improvement in my day-to-day activities, I am still aging.

The Panarchy Cycle is usually described as four repeating steps:


2.Exploitation and Growth

3.Conservation and Stabilization

4.Release or Creative Destruction

A commonly used example of these steps is a forest system after a large-scale fire:

1. The “empty” landscape after the fire becomes populated by weeds and other fast-growing plants and small animals and micro-organisms.

2. As the landscape becomes denser with life, fast growth is gradually replaced by plants and animals that can store resources and more easily alter the forest to fit their needs.

3. Eventually, the forest becomes stable and many of its possibilities for novelty are locked up in resources controlled by subsystems of large tree species, symbiotic relationships, organizing of resource flows like water, animal families and reproduction, and so on.

4. The CAS organization becomes increasingly brittle and subject to easier breakdown.

The two big drivers of the development of enabling relationships in the CAS are the “poverty trap” in the early development of the system, when it is tough to use resources because they must be changed (the enabling relationships must be created) by those organisms that participate in early development, and the “rigidity trap”, when most resources are already tied up in some subsystem, and organisms have set patterns for their use and reproduction. Rigidity is defended and becomes brittle and opens the forest to disturbances that cause some level of cascading breakdown in the system’s ability to adapt to further disturbance.

It is often difficult for us to accept this kind of aging cycle in our own organizations or those we target for advocacy because it seems as though the problems we experience would be easy to fix if we just go ahead and fix them. This apparent ease of problem-solving is based on our false idea that the organization is a machine or a computer.

The isolated problem is often easy to fix. But fixing the problem also changes the CAS in long term ways that are hard to see, by destabilizing some enabling relationships and generally making enabling relationships harder to create. This is the unavoidable burden of unintended consequences.

Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License

(P3): The Ways of Governing Constraints

A female soldier doing orthopedic rehabilitation under PT supervision.

Governing Constraints create possibility spaces by eliminating large swaths of possibility that are irrelevant to the meaning of the governing constraint. When there is more than one governing constraint in an organization, the governing constraints create a complex possibility space that permits much more complex possibility choices.  When the CAS is working the way it is supposed to, the multiple governing constraints also allow the populating of the space by more complex enabling relationships. In turn, this drives a more complex CAS development process and a more complex aging process.

But the interaction of multiple governing constraints is, well, complex. Multiple constraints can undermine or enable each other, and the choices made by participants in an organization can produce extremely different organizational behavior. The three governing constraints of any advocacy organization or the usual organizations that are subject to advocacy (Mission, Reproduction, and Hierarchy) frame but do not determine that behavioral path.

The primary result of the Hierarchy Constraint is a massive reduction in the possibilities of enabling relationships. The best example of this is the aphorism about bureaucracies, “Anything not required is forbidden”. Hierarchy is a societal choice, not an objective law of physics. It hinges on the belief that the universe is mechanical, and that restricting choice improves the causal power of the mechanical links that supposedly guarantee outcomes.

The staff will be flogged until morale improves, etc.

Hierarchy can be based on logical relationships or power relationships. Logical hierarchies are not used to run organizations. The use of a power hierarchy always reduces the possibilities in the space created by Mission and Reproduction.

The Mission, at least in new systems, is the best statement of what the system can create. The relationship between Mission and Reproduction is complicated by the way that a complex adaptive system ages.

If a system ignores Reproduction to maximize it’s Mission, the system will run out of resources to realize the Mission. If the system maximizes reproduction at the expense of the Mission, then the system will become like a zombie, focused exclusively on more resources, with no regard for Mission outcomes.

Because human systems are made up of humans, it is always possible to change the relationship between Mission, Reproduction, and Hierarchy, creating a new complex possibility space. But it becomes more difficult to change these relationships as the system ages, and the likelihood of some kind of system collapse (not required to be total) increases.

Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License