Suspend complexity, not disbelief


Sometimes buzz words can be helpful for understanding complexity — in the way they get used, by whom, to accomplish what. Other times they just uphold some kind of linguistic hazing, or thesaurus gate-keeping.

I've been thinking a lot about the tension and harmony between the terms 'pattern-matching' and 'systems-thinking'. I use both, and consider myself excellent at the former (not necessarily a good thing!), while admiring those who work with the lens of the latter (and sometimes think I achieve it myself). But the difference between them and how they are used, I think shows us something interesting.

Let's start with pattern-matching. Like most douche de jour terms, it comes from engineering. It's a fancy way of saying that when evaluating a set of programmatic expressions you... look for patterns. Taking from a StackOverflow explanation: "Pattern matching is useful because it lets us decompose a data structure by its shape instead of its contents." And a nice wikipedia page overview here.

In addition to being an engineering term, it's also a developmental milestone for humans, who need simple ways to sense make of the world.

But, when confronted with a universe of texture and complexity, someone that leans too heavily on pattern-matching will squish complexity until it is just another form of confirmation bias that drives both overconfidence and inaccuracy. Generously, it allows you to take a complex system and reduce it to a set of themes or patterns that can help you make smart choices based on a reductionist assessment. Ungenerously it undermines your ability to truly understand complex things, and maintain a curiosity that drives learning. Ultimately, it can blunt your ability to weigh the diversity of perspectives, expertise, and human experience that should inform decisions in a complex world.

Enter systems-thinking. Systems-thinking is a way of considering the complexity and interdependency of a problem, context, and possible set of solutions. It allows for ambiguity, helps drive analysis towards experimentation and action, and lends itself to tackling big issues because it has a respect for the number of moving parts. When done well, systems-thinking opens up opportunities for creativity, interdependent intervention, and agile approaches to seemingly intractable problems. When done badly, systems-thinking is a conceptual concerto that lends itself to conference panel poetics.

At some point, these two fraternal twin concepts radically diverge: both are a way of simplifying complex concepts so that action can be taken — this is great, so we can (and should) use both systems-thinking and pattern-matching to affect positive change.

But the differences between the two are something we should not ignore:

  • Pattern-matching is often used by those with power to leverage simplicity to their advantage: e.g. VCs will definitely simplify down a new application for AI or blockchain, in order to continue to secure funding, or just keep funding white dudes because white dudes have been more successful at fundraising over the last decade (and what is a VC aside from the leader of a ponzi scheme anyway).
  • Systems-thinking is often used to move forward intentionally within a complex system — it's an elegant way to bring about meaningful systems change. It helps us understand enough about a system to find a step we can take — sometimes even in tandem with others taking steps — to advance outcomes and learn something that can inform our next actions.

So with one you can game the system, and with the other you can change the system.

This difference encapsulates a lot of the politics and pain that comes as we navigate new possibilities presented by technology. I find myself sometimes gaming and sometimes changing.

How do these approaches show up in your work? Hit reply and answer one (or more!) of these...

  1. When in your work have you gamed the system?
  2. When in your work have you changed the system?
  3. When have you tried to change a gamer?

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