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Complexity and planning for “endstates”

from a discussion on usefulness or not of the “end-state” concept and planning in general when faced with the challenges of nation building:

Complexity theory says that complexity arises from a combination of 4 attributes: moderate to high levels of interdependence, connectedness,  diversity and adaptation. Complex systems do not lend themselves to cause & effect analysis because thay are not computable, and yet we can act appropriately. For example, we can decide how and when to cross a snowfield that is in a critical state (prone-to-avalanche) to reduce risk, whereas we can plan to cross a snowfield that is not critically organize. Scott Page (2007) has some great insights into these ideas in “Complex Adaptive Systems: An Introduction to Computational Models of Social Life”

When I hear “end-state” with respect to complex situations, I hear a euphemism for “a state sufficiently changed from this current one in order to have a significantly new set of options for action available”.  In the case of an Afghanistan end-state, that could take the form of a narrative of the DIME conditions that allow a dramatically reduced  presence at a “normal” level of geo-political risk. That respects the essentially qualitative assessment of what that description might entail

Using “state” in that sense, the definition or vision of an “end-state” or for any number of “imaginable future states” does mean they have to be orderly, only describable, such that from the description, a strategy can be preferred.

You could conceivable move from complexity to chaos to complicated, with different prblem-solving/design/problem-managing strategies appropriate as the “state” changed.

Decisions for how to act under complexity could be framed in terms appropriate for managing complex networks; that is, acknowledging that strict rules of  cause & effect arent in play, but that simple, sound management principles that are values based can be applied.  Gribben (2004) has some thoughts on these lines in “Deep Simplicity”.

Since political decisions rule, and they are essentially social and therefore qualitative in nature,  I believe our conversations about policy and objectives should acknowledge the language of complexity and fuzziness, while retaining the power of doctrinal precision where it works for us

  1. December 5, 2009 at 10:42 am

    Great article with very useful references.

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