What Science Says About Releasing Potential

 Graphic: Trevor Melton

Graphic: Trevor Melton


In 1956, Ross Ashby, a pioneer in cybernetics, formulated the foundational law for governing high complexity. 

His law is known as the “Law of Requisite Variety.” If a system is to be stable, Ashby contends, the complexity of its control mechanism must be greater than or equal to the complexity of the system being controlled. This may seem confusing but simply stated, only the variety in complexity can govern complexity. 

In effect, those interested in assembling a high-complex system face a stern challenge because their control systems must be as complex as the system itself. 

Traffic engineers originally invented traffic signals with only red and green lights. Because the variety in the signals was insufficient to handle the variety in traffic, numerous accidents ensued. When the engineers added an orange light, accident rates plummeted. Their controls added the variety necessary to manage the transition between a stop and go.  

Over time, systems scientists have embraced Ashby’s Law as ground truth. His law is so central to high-complex systems that it is, in effect, what gravity is to physics.

Ashby’s Law requires us to innovate. As he reasons, systems require persistent, continuous innovation to remain requisite with the complexity of exponential growth and change. 

Although it does not abolish hierarchy, Ashby’s Law reminds us a central purpose of a hierarchy is to create conditions that foster continuous innovation.

And finally, Ashby’s Law of Requisite Variety posits the true measure of community wealth as the quality of connections and synergies.

After Ashby formulated his law, management professor Russell Ackoff of the Wharton School instructed that we follow the mandates of Ashby’s Law by starting with synthesis.

The purpose of a system is what it does. There is after all, no point in claiming that the purpose of a system is to do what it constantly fails to do.

A comment from Stafford Beer, founder of cybernetics, a science that uses systems thinking to explore complexity (and led to lots of other coinages of “cyber,” such as cyberpunk and cyberspace). Beer’s work in Chile drew attention to Ashby’s Law and inspired Chilean systems scientists such as Alfredo del Valle and Fernando Flores. 

Perhaps the jazz, rhythm, and sway of South America paved the way for their systems scientists to abandon the unproductive search for control and settle into a productive quest for a viable model of order.


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.