High-Complex Systems Become Locked Up

 Graphic: Trevor Melton

Graphic: Trevor Melton


In high-complex systems like healthcare or education, synergy underdevelops. Actors compete with crossed agendas. Issues play out in silos. Disciplines have their own professional vocabularies. Cultures rarely communicate with each other. Everything is related to everything else, but synergy—the ways things connect—largely remains untapped. Entropy ensues. The whole is worth less than the sum of the parts.

Dr. W. Edwards Deming, a professor, engineer, and statistician, reminded people the system itself—not the individual players—creates the majority of quality errors. Employing a metaphor, he explained once a factory is completed, quality faults create problems that cannot be fixed without redesigning the factory itself. Consider the example of the Avery Fisher Hall in New York’s Lincoln Center. Despite millions of dollars spent to fix the problem, the acoustics in the hall remain “out of tune.” The problem is baked in.

Dr. Shawn Joseph, Nashville’s Director of Schools, manages a school system with a budget of almost a billion dollars. When he entered his education factory, so to speak, the assembly lines were already humming with layers of people, rules, and processes trying their best to deliver career and college-bound students. Unfortunately, only twenty-four percent of public high school graduates later graduate from two or four-year college, and this has probably been the case for decades.

When Dr. Joseph studied the layers of this inherited factory, he discovered scores of piecemeal programs. Kids not good at math? We have a program for that. Kids can’t speak English? We have a program for that. Kids falling behind in school? We have a program for that. We have programs for everything, it seems, and lots more programs waiting in the wings.

Dr. Joseph presides over a complex system with a life of its own (a “living system”) locked in patterns of solving problems. There are rules about everything. Rules prescribe what to teach, how to teach, how to manage students, and how to assess. The intertwining network of rules has become a beast with its own life, a culture of its own. If Dr. Joseph tries to evolve his factory, the beast will fight back ferociously. The beast does not like change—even when the change preserves the good in the system.

Today we would never design from scratch our awkward systems of education, government, and healthcare. But the “life-of-its-own” aspect of these systems makes innovation an uphill climb through wicked problems. This stops most systems change in its tracks.

High-complex systems lock up even with good leadership. Dr. Joseph wakes up every day determined to change the system. But education stays locked up because the essence of a factory is almost impossible to change once it’s built —no matter how inspiring the leader.


Carter Andrews helps businesses and communities improve complex systems. He champions collaborative design that features strong participation by diverse participants. Download his paper Leadership for High-Complex Systems in Future Ready Nashville to dive into the world of complexity.