Today I am talking with Irene Sanders (more about Ms. Sanders), author of Strategic Thinking and the New Science: Planning in the Midst of Chaos, Complexity and Change. Irene, thanks so much for agreeing to be the third idealawg interview, a series in which I interview thinkers and practitioners about ideas that can be valuable to the legal profession.
Please tell us how you Irene Sanders got interested in the "new science." What drew you to it? What value did you see in it? And please tell us the story behind your book.
In the early 1980s I was working on the Hill in Washington, DC as a legislative assistant to U.S. Senator Sam Nunn and one of the things I noticed was that there were times when world events and national crises very quickly pushed other issues aside, restructured political alliances and rearranged budget priorities. Issues seem to emerge out of nowhere. And very few concerns were ever taken care of once and for all. In other words, what we thought would change almost never did, yet change was constant and often unexpected.
A few years later when I started a consulting firm focused on strategic thinking and planning, I encountered the same experience over and over with my clients and their organizations.
Now, I understand that there were two major reasons for this paradox of change. First, we did not understand the dynamics of change in realistic and coherent ways. And second, even though we talked about systems, our perspective was limited. We did not see the whole picture. What we were missing was an understanding about the dynamics of change in the big picture context in which our decisions were being made.
In 1989, a futurist friend gave me James Gleick's book, Chaos: Making a New Science, and urged me to read it as soon as possible. In that book I knew that I'd found what I'd been looking for--information about the emerging new science of change. In my mind, this new science provided the framework for a new and scientifically-based approach for developing foresight about the future.
The book came about as the result of an unexpected telephone call in 1994 from an editor in New York City. I was in the midst of preparing for a major presentation at a conference in Boston when I received the call asking if I had ever thought about writing a book. The editor who called me had received the conference brochure which piqued her interest. To say the least, I was caught off guard, but managed to respond coherently and positively to her interest in working with me on the development of a book.
Let's start with defining what we will be discussing. What is systems theory? Or should I be asking what is complexity science? Is there a difference?
Complexity can be defined as a situation where an increasing number of independent variables begin interacting in interdependent and unpredictable ways.Traffic, weather, the stock market, the United Nations or two dogs and a cat suddenly face-to-face through a hole in the fence are examples of complex systems.
In the last twenty-five years, rapid advances in high-speed computing and computer graphics have created a revolution in scientists' understanding of complex systems. In much the same way that the microscope assisted biologists and the telescope assisted astronomers, computer technology has given scientists powerful new tools of insight, making it possible for scientists to study the dynamics of systems that were once either hopelessly inaccessible or took years to understand.Complexity science represents a growing body of interdisciplinary knowledge about the structure, behavior and dynamics of change in a specific category of complex system known as complex adaptive systems. Most of the world is comprised of complex adaptive systems--open evolutionary systems such as a rain forest, a business, a society, our immune systems, the World Wide Web and the rapidly globalizing economy--where the components are strongly interrelated, self-organizing and dynamic.
Thanks, Irene. It sounds to me like knowledge of complex systems can be a real asset in law -- in representing clients, training lawyers, managing law firms, perhaps even client development. If most of the world is made up of complex adaptive systems, isn't one at a disadvantage in not understanding how they work? If so, what kinds of mistakes could a person make if they are not aware of how these systems work, say in an adversarial situation in the legal system (maybe akin to the dogs and a cat you mentioned above) or in managing a law firm?
Complexity science is moving us away from a linear, mechanistic view of the world, to one based on nonlinear dynamics, evolutionary development and systems thinking. It represents a dramatic new way of looking at things; not just looking at more things at once. So yes, if you don't have even a rudimentary understanding of complexity you will most likely make many of the mistakes associated with linear reductionist thinking. This includes not seeing the big picture or the whole system and its influence points whether that be your own law firm and the larger context in which it operates or the system around a specific case.
One of the mistakes I see in law firms is the belief that the administrative aspects of the firm have very little to do with the legal work and the successes of the legal team. One of the things that complexity tells us is that the whole is more than the sum of its parts. Without the infrastructure, dynamic hubs of activity and customer interaction provided by administrative staff, the legal team would be like a brain without a mind--a collection of highly specialized components without the ability to function effectively.
Another mistake I often see in law firms is the belief that a well-constructed factual case will win. Certainly, we would all like to believe that. However, the facts are only part of the system created by a specific case. This is a good example of the nonlinear dynamics and multiple influence points in a complex system. While the facts are usually straightforward and the linear cause-effect relationships are easy to see, the outcome of the case can be influenced by many nonlinear interactions including jury selection and hidden biases, judicial decision-making and prejudice, the media, witness testimony and attorney performance before the court. Seeing as much of the system as possible ahead of time provides opportunities to influence the case outcome positively.
A few years ago I spent a day with a community leadership group in Houston, Texas, which included a senior partner from one of the city's largest law firms. When I asked the group to think about how some of the concepts could be used, he decided to work with one of the key insights from chaos theory--a small change can great big results at some point in the future, if the system is sensitive to the change. This concept is known metaphorically as the Butterfly Effect. His law firm had a policy of taking on as many pro bono cases as possible, which always had the potential to mushroom into more work than expected. So, using the concept of the Butterfly Effect, his recommendation to his firm was that they take fewer cases but select those that had the greatest potential to influence case law.
Because the variables in a complex adaptive system are interacting constantly and changing in response to each other, the system is nonlinear. In nonlinear systems, a small change in one variable can spark changes in another and another. Small changes or inputs of resources at strategic influence points can propagate through space and time to bring about significant shifts in the overall system. With this in mind, the attorney in the described example saw an opportunity for his firm to influence the larger system of case law by being more selective upfront about their pro bono work. His recommendation was that the firm select pro bono cases based on their potential strategic influence in the future.
Irene, leadership is a popular topic for many lawyers these days. Do your areas of expertise give us any guidance or wisdom on leaders and leadership? Before you answer, please explain how you define leader and leadership.
Stephanie, this is an interesting question because the concepts of leader and leadership need to reviewed through the lens of complexity, and currently there's a lot of discussion in the management literature about this subject. The term "leader" usually refers to a role or function within an organizational hierarchy and the word "leadership" usually describes a set of behaviors or attributes demonstrated by the person or persons in the leader roles. But if we think of a complex adaptive human system as a network of self-organizing hubs of activity then you see that leaders emerge depending on the activity and then dissipate or change when the activity is completed or changes.
So it's important that everyone develop the attributes of leadership in order to take the lead should the need arise. Think for a minute about the elegant and changeable patterns created by a flock of birds. Leadership in the flock changes quickly depending on environmental conditions, yet there remains a discernible pattern to their movement together. In the structure of a law firm the partners are usually at the top of the hierarchy, but in practice there are many leaders at work in the administrative and case-related hubs of activity. So when I think about what this would look like on paper, I see a hybrid; a hierarchy alive with self-organizing tornadoes of activity.
Tornadoes of activity; what a great image. I can see where leadership is more of an ebb and flow than is described in your typical leadership book today. Thanks very much for your explanation. There are those that believe the legal system needs somehow to be changed or transformed. While I do not necessarily agree, the idea is provocative. How would one change the legal system? What if not everyone agreed on the changes desired? How would their differences be resolved?
Well, first of all when someone says that they would like to transform the legal system I would ask them to be more specific. It's a big statement about an incredibly complex field. Are they referring to client service, actual case law, tort reform, a traffic ticket, legal fees, their experience with a judge and jury or their sense that corporate corruption is unstoppable? Aside from major legislation or court decisions that would affect the system across the board, most system change would probably be initiated by an individual attorney or firm. Because the practice of law is highly competitive, an attorney or firm that becomes more successful through their own changes, say for example better client service or a new payment process, will have an impact on others through a Butterfly Effect-like process. Small changes in one part of the system creates new feedback which propagates through the larger system with a much larger impact at some point in the future.
In many ways the legal system is analogous to the health care system, which people are also anxious to transform. The most exciting changes in health care are being made one hospital and one practice at a time. There is a huge backlash against the controlling nature of the health insurance industry toward more personal patient-friendly systems and procedures. And many hospitals are using ideas from complex systems research to make changes.
I am wondering if knowledge of systems would be of any assistance in resolving a dispute, either in the litigation or the mediation process. As a simple example, let's look at a dispute between two business partners in which only the partners have standing. Obviously many more people than the parties are potentially affected in some way by the outcome: suppliers, customers, the community in which the business is located, the friends and family of the parties, the list goes on. With your expertise at seeing situations, you could probably quickly add to my list. If you draw a picture of those possibly affected, the circle including the parties seems small. Would it be helpful in reaching a resolution to take into account these non-parties? If so, how?
Yes. A system is always bigger than first imagined, especially when you consider the larger context with all outside factors influencing the system. Drawing a picture of the system around a conflict using the FutureScape® process, for example, would immediately shift one's understanding regarding the dynamics of the larger system around the key issues. A conflict should be thought of as a complex adaptive system--self-organizing, dynamic and nonlinear--as opposed to a static historical event with a linear trajectory into the present.
Thanks very much, Irene, for lending us a bit of your expertise. I appreciate your taking the time. I have much to think about after hearing what you have to say and I am sure readers will too. I hope people pick up your book and delve more deeply into this helpful "new science."