Byron's Babbles

Social Complexity 

For each of the last two days I blogged about Dynamic Complexity and Generative Complexity respectively. My inspiration for these posts has been the book by Adam Kahane titled Solving Tough Problems: An Open Way of Talking, Listening, and Creating New Realities. I feel compelled to write about the third complexity he offered in the book: Social Complexity. As Kahane (2004) taught us: “[S]ocial complexity requires us to talk not just with people who see things the same way we do, but especially with those who see things differently, even those we don’t like. We must stretch way beyond our comfort zone” (p. 75). Wow, how true this is. Think about this for a minute; how many times when trying to solve complex issues do we really listen to those who think differently, see the world differently, or just flat-out don’t like us? 

“Roughly, by a complex system I mean one made up of a large number of parts that interact in a nonsimple way. In such systems, the whole is more than the sum of the parts, not in an ultimate, metaphysical sense, but in the important pragmatic sense that, given the properties of the parts and the laws of their interaction, it is not a trivial matter to infer the properties of the whole. In the face of complexity, an in-principle reductionist may be at the same time a pragmatic holist.” ~  Herbert Simon in his 1962 article, “The Architecture of Complexity.”

I look at social complexity as being complicated by the very nature that we cannot provide a simple model of the system that adds up and makes sense of, or can predict the independent behaviors of the parts; rather, the parts are influenced in their behaviors by the behaviors of other people, groups, organization, governments, or even populations. This is in contrast with the simple system of an internal combustion engine. It might seem very complex, but really it is simple because every part, both moving and not, has a function and order in which to do that function.

In a spark ignition engine, the fuel is mixed with air and then inducted into the cylinder during the intake process. After the piston compresses the fuel-air mixture, the spark ignites it, causing combustion. The expansion of the combustion gases pushes the piston during the power stroke. In a diesel engine, only air is inducted into the engine and then compressed. Diesel engines then spray the fuel into the hot compressed air at a suitable, measured rate, causing it to ignite. This all very hierarchical in that everything happens in a specific order that never changes.

Let’s now contrast this with the social complexity and causal processes (sub-systems) that make up our education system. And consider some aggregate properties we may be interested in such as state law and policy, federal law and policy, political dynamics, local community social differences, socio-economic factors, race, mobility, or the social and emotional needs of our students to just name a few. Some of the processes that influence these properties are designed (Every Student Succeeds Act, school boards {both state and local}, school management systems), but many are not. Instead, they are the result of separate and non-teleological processes leading to the present. And there is often a high degree of causal interaction among these separate processes. As a result, it might be more reasonable to expect that social systems are likely to embody greater complexity and less decomposability than systems like an internal combustion engine.

“To create new realities, we have to listen reflectively. It is not enough to be able to hear clearly the chorus of other voices; we must also hear the contribution of our own voice. It is not enough to be able to see others in the picture of what is going on; we must also see what others are doing. It is not enough to be observers of the problem situation; we must recognize ourselves as actors who influence the outcome.” ~ Adam Kahane

This reminds me of a legislative panel I am on right now to look at and make recommendations to our state legislature on our high stakes summative state testing (required by the Every Student Succeeds Act – ESSA). This committee is made up of 23 different individuals and appointed by different entities. My appointment comes as being the representative of the Indiana State Board of Education. Needless to say, we have lots of social complexity. Needless to say it has been awkward and tenuous navigating on this panel. Here are some things I have learned from Kahane (2004) to help us as leaders:

  • To solve a complex problem, we have to immerse ourselves in and open up to its full complexity.
  • Our core tasks need to be to “widen the circle” and “deepen the bench.”
  • Tough problems can only be solved if people talk openly, and in many situations this takes real courage.
  • Listen openly. 

I close with Kahane’s (2004) definition of listening: [T]he process of taking in something new and being unsettled and changed by it” (p. 69). I ask you: Are you a leader who listens?


Kahane, A. (2004). Solving tough problems: An open way of talking, listening, and creating new realities. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler.


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