In the aftermath of the 9/11 atrocity, once it became clear that the perpetrators were using hijacked aeroplanes to attack buildings, it became a matter of national security to have every plane in US airspace land at the nearest airport. However, no procedure or process existed to permit this to happen.
Researchers, eager to devise one, immediately began studying the data, meticulously examining how each team of air traffic controllers managed the fraught situation. Their conclusion? Devising a one-size-fits-all procedure would fail to be as effective as allowing each region to dynamically manage the situation.
A single system would simply encumber the spontaneous human process developed in the heat of the crisis by the air traffic control teams themselves (as we saw last time, they collectively have at their disposal the infinite variety of their personal histories, desires and understandings).
This is complexity theory in action, a central tenet of which is that attempts at total, managed order will inevitably end in squeezing the flexibility and spontaneity needed to address every possible human situation or interaction.
Leaders informed by complexity theory don’t attempt to use command and control tactics in this type of situation. They suspect the simplistic (and doomed) project of devising a single management solution to a seemingly linear problem in favour of ensuring the communicative channels are as open as possible for human teams to collaborate as creatively as possible in generating their experience-close solutions.
Individual human actors in systems make choices simultaneously (“parallel processing”) about how to act based on information about their immediate environment. Their choices spontaneously influence and limit each other’s actions; but far from being random, they follow implicit rules (associated with preferences, desires interests, etc.) about how they decide what to do next.
When the chips are down – when they’re on “the edge of chaos” in complexity theory – they’re full of novelty and experimentation, reacting to tiny changes in big and surprising ways.
Facilitating these processes is far more feasible than trying to command and control them.