Navigating complexity: Non linear control systems and the uterus

While it is obvious that the world is changing rapidly, for some reason we still cling on to patterns that are actually no longer serving us. As our society is challenged by multiple crises, it might be an invitation to reflect on our patterns. As Albert Einstein once said “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them”. A crisis is partly old solutions that no longer fit  the new circumstances. One of the paradoxes is that we are trying to ‘manage’ these crises, and yet exactly this outdated perception of managing is partly at the root of the challenges we are currently facing as society. 

Simon Luyts
Simon Luyts

Our habitual way of managing is a linear way of thinking. We run into something that is disturbing us. There is a tension between “what is now” and the “to be”(or should be). Clever as we are, we design a plan to “fix” the current state. With milestones, targets, KPI’s, etc. we track our progress towards the desired outcome. With ingenuity, hard work, and sometime brute power, we struggle our way forward. This is a typical linear control system. There is point A, where you are now, and there is the desired outcome B. There might be iterations where we readjust the KPI’s and integrate feedback loops. The journey might not be a straight line but nonetheless linear. 

So then what are non linear control systems, and how are they different? 

Non linear control systems turn our current paradigm of management upside down. It is about letting go of managing and controlling, and allowing things to grow. To make this more tangible, let’s use the image of a uterus. (Yes a uterus!) 

A uterus does not have control of the outcome. It does not decide when an embryo arrives and wants to grow inside, nor does it have a say in whether it will be a boy or a girl. All it knows that certain conditions need to be right, and when these conditions are met, the embryo will develop and grow. There is an ‘A-point’ and  ‘B-point’, but these are outside of the control of the uterus. Non linear control systems don’t try to force the outcome, but focus on what is in their circle of influence: creating the right conditions. And when conditions are met, the result will emerge. 

A second important analogy is that for the embryo to become a baby, all things have their timing. When looking at the first days, the embryo looks nothing like a baby, it is just the sack that is growing, creating the conditions for the growth of the baby in a later stage . In due time the phoetus has become a baby that seems to want to be delivered and what has become the biggest muscle in a woman’s body exerts considerable pressure to give birth to the new life that has grown within it.. Non linear control systems are all about the right timing, and not wanting to see the fruits of the process too soon. When you break an egg to soon, the duckling dies. When it hatches from the inside, new life emerges. 

To continue using this image, not all embryos are viable. A lot of spontaneous abortions happen around 12 weeks. After this period the body/uterus can sense whether or not this embryo has the potential of becoming a healthy baby or not. And when it seems that it lacks viability, it will let it go. The uterus then waits and is present to welcome a new embryo when conditions arise.  

Menstruation releases the current welcoming lining and rebuilds a new lining in case a fertilised eggs happens along, always maintaining good conditions for implantation and growth. Non linear control systems are not clinging onto a specific outcome. As important as creating the right conditions is, equally important it is to know and discern when to let go. Letting go means redirecting energy away from something that is not working, and having it available to nurture new possibilities as the arise. 

Non linearity is about accepting that there are so many variables that are not under control, and realising that when you do try to manage or measure them you actually do more harm than good. The efforts to control and measure can take up so much energy that it suffocates the potential that could have emerged. I think everyone has experienced the emergence of cool idea, and then it is put into a plan, with targets and milestones, and suddenly the enthusiasm is gone.  

Most of the projects we undertake (unless we work with manmade machines or algorithms) involve quite a level of uncertainty and non linearity. Linear control systems are not able to deal with the complexity of living beings and organisations. And yet we are ignoring this complexity, partly because we don’t know any viable alternatives. 

So what does this mean for project management, change management, etc. and how can it be done differently? 

A profoundly different way of approaching these challenges is by integrating the lessons from the uterus. As a project team, you become the uterus. You create the right conditions with your best efforts, you sense and pick up the relevant signals to do so. You nurture what wants to grow, with patience, right timing and good discernment. 

This is easier said than done. Coming from a linear mindset, doing this requires a whole new set of tools and language. 

Here are a few heuristics that can help you on the way: 

  • Establish a direction/vector. 

Know together which direction you are heading. You are on a journey together. Make sure you know the vector (speed and direction) without fixing the destination. Journeys have unexpected detours that often turn out to be most fruitful. Journeys are fun as a process, not just the end result. 

  • Pay attention to how things start. The fruit is in its seed. 

Direction is important, consciously or unconsciously that direction is set from the beginning. Regardless of small beginnings (ex. start of a meeting) or big beginnings (ex. starting a big project), the quality and intention with which you start will set the direction of further events. I at least can name several starts where I went too fast, too rushed, which set a tone and had impact on the rest of the project. 

  • Foster relationships. 

Take time for dialogue, invest in relationships and being together without having an outcome in mind. The cliché that the best conversations happen at a bar or during a coffee break is true. It is from these uncontrolled togetherness that new ideas, creativity, and possibilities emerge. 

  • Find a shared language, make the invisible visible. 

As you build relationships, you start building a narrative together. This is something implicit. But when you listen carefully you see patterns emerging, and the undercurrent becomes visible. Collecting and connecting the stories, and reflecting them to the group helps to make the invisible come to the surface. From there a deepened shared understanding arises. This shared narrative is needed to collaborate in moving forward. A clear shared understanding of the current state will inform the next right actions that want to be taken. 

  • Look for resonance. Encourage desirable patterns. Probe for resonance to see if undesirable patterns can be redirected. 

As you make the undercurrent visible and you reflect it back to the group, be aware of where things resonate. Where are the synchronicities? Where are the people that are moved from within? Rather than forcing your way through by coming up with boring plans and endless to do lists, pay attention to where there is intrinsic motivation and follow the energy. Pay attention to where the system is already wanting to move, and make that direction your ally rather than your enemy. If you take this to heart it will save you a lot of energy and trouble. Important in finding resonance is taking time for dialogue, where people feel allowed to share what matters to them, and listen with attention. Then the conversation starts converging into a specific direction and without effort next steps emerge. An example of this is how a conversation at a network event effortlessly turns into a new project. 

The same thing goes for undesirable patterns. If the potential harm is within acceptable boundaries, don’t forcefully disrupt it. This will only give more momentum to it. Just as you would try to give your toddler a different toy to distract the attention away from something dangerous they are playing with, probe and sense how these patterns can be redirected. 

  • Sense with your whole body. We are more than just our minds. 

How do we look for resonance, and how do we know we have found it? Through careful paying attention to our senses we pick up signals. We listen to what people are saying and we see their facial expressions and their body language. But more than that, we can also listen to our own body. Whether we feel tense, joyful, at unease or relaxed,  fast or slow, they provide us with important information about the group and the process. It is not all about rationally analysing these signals, but intuition and gut feeling are equally important when surfing the wave of resonance. 

  • Never host alone. 

As a host is creating the right conditions fort the guests, you as facilitator are also hosting this process. By picking up the signals, finding resonance, making the invisible visible… you start creating the right conditions, and this is difficult when alone. We are all limited by our own biases. In order not to have your own filters distort the emergent process, we need different people looking from different angles with whom you can reflect on the signals and whether it is a clue that needs to be followed, or to pick up a different lead. It is in this exchange that the journey can unfold unexpectedly, and take you places you cannot from the departure point. 

Conclusion 

Let’s not ignore complexity but rather embrace it. When we embrace complexity we leave behind approaches that fail to reach depth that is needed, and it allows ourselves to be surprised by unexpected outcomes. Let’s move beyond a linear control approach and find again the joy and excitement in following the journey. With heuristics as a guide we have a clear process, safe enough to sense our way, step by step, forward. 

In co-creation with Julian Still