Dots in a Complex System are Connecting Rapidly


In their now popular book on The Second Machine Age Andrew McAfee and Eric Brynjolfsson describe one of the forces behind our accelerating pace. This force could be key to understanding the dynamics of our environment; the number of potentially valuable building blocks is exploding around the world, and the possibilities are multiplying like never before.

The sheer number of building blocks makes this era different than the ones that have come before it – and it’s not just the number, but the way the building blocks are Intersecting. For example, figure 1 depicts a number of building blocks that are converging to transform mobility. Building blocks can be innovations in science and technology, societal change, and emerging future scenarios among others . Followers of my Blog are familiar with this anchor visual. I use it as a canvas to describe various aspects of our emerging future (anyone new to the Blog can find a description Here).

System Thinking

Figure 1: Combinatorial Innovation

Our world has always been a complex system; difficult to understand and navigate. A complex adaptive system is a system in which a perfect understanding of the individual parts does not automatically convey a perfect understanding of the whole system’s behavior. The virtuous cycles quietly advancing innovation (see figure 2) combine with a building-block fueled speed dynamic to take complexity to another level. Consider the rapid advances across the sciences – enabled by exponential gains in technologies that allow scientist to experiment in ways they never could. Witness the progression of brain science as an example of that virtuous cycle at work.  As a result, our ability to Connect Dots in meaningful ways is critical to navigating this complex and uncertain world, where the unexpected occurs on a regular basis. Our Looking Glass World elevates the need for system thinking.

These dots connect in ways that are difficult to see. Some may argue that this has been true throughout history – and I would agree. However, I go back to explanations presented in the Second Machine Age – there are at least two differences from our past: the sheer number of building blocks and the speed dynamic. Add to this the impact of virtuous cycles and the potential for technology like AI to feed this innovation cycle in unprecedented ways. The Disruptive Power is amplified as these forces converge.

Virtuous Cycles

Figure 2: Example of a virtuous cycle

So, add system thinking to those leadership qualities that we must nurture. System innovation rises above offering innovation, and systemic leadership becomes much more important than conventional leadership. The leadership mindset switches from the individual or organisation to the system. I’m an advocate of future thinking as a mechanism to support this leadership mindset. A Future Thinking Canvas is a great place to start.

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