Processes for Assembling High Complexity Emerge

 Graphic: Trevor Melton

Graphic: Trevor Melton


In 1981, Professor Ackoff provided the next insight into releasing high complexity’s potential. In the machine age, we believed a complete understanding of the world was possible. We analyzed everything to reduce it to its individual elements. Systems work, Ackoff emphasized, proceeds in a path opposite that of the machine age. 

Ackoff concluded that in the systems age the whole cannot be divided into independent parts. When we split the whole into parts, we lose the most vital aspect of a system—how it connects to everything else. Analysis works, but only in partnership with synthesis.

In 1987, the architect Matt Taylor and his wife Gail Taylor built on Ashby’s Law of Requisite Variety and Ackoff’s systems logic to formalize a design process for dealing with wicked problems called the MG Taylor DesignShop. Creating a future different from that arriving by default, they reasoned, requires a design process.

A quick example. MG Taylor led the collaborative DesignShop process to redefine the potential of the F-15 fighter. The result? He doubled the capability of the jet, reduced cost by fifteen percent, and finished the redesign in only eighteen months. And he saved billions of dollars!

Most of the Fortune 100 and global consulting companies use variations on the process to design and implement systems innovation. The World Economic Forum has adopted this process as its operating system. 

Another example. In 1991, Professor Alfredo del Valle, a Chilean systems scientist educated in the US, engineered a different process for solving wicked problems. Sadly, the Western world has mostly ignored his work.

In his native Chile, Del Valle’s methods bent the accident curve of the traffic system. Over a six-year period, the team reduced the accident rates in a system where few followed traffic laws to rates comparable to those in the US! 

In another project in Santiago, Del Valle’s work contributed to reducing critical air quality episodes from seventy-eight per year to five. 

Forty years after Ashby and Ackoff, the science of quantum mechanics confirmed their insights into high complexity. At the quantum level, the essential force in the universe is the connection. All entities connect to other entities. Webs of relationships form our organizations, our systems, and our world.

Processes for assembling high complexity continue to emerge. They help networks and communities design the future they desire. These emerging processes inform our complexity work at the Nelson Andrews Leadership Center.


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.

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