Tesler’s Law of Conservation of Complexity:

Harish's Notebook - My notes... Quality, Data Science, Strategy & Lean.


In today’s post, I am looking at Tesler’s Law of Conservation of Complexity. Larry Tesler, who came up with the law, worked at Xerox PARC, Apple, Amazon, and Yahoo in different capacities. He was one of the brains behind “cut/copy and paste” functionality in word processors. The basic premise of the law is as follows:

“Every application has an inherent amount of irreducible complexity. The only question is: Who will have to deal with it—the user, the application developer, or the platform developer?”

This is an important idea in the user interaction with a software application. One of the best examples to explain this further comes from Dan Saffer’s excellent book, “Designing for Interaction.” Think of the email application. It needs a “From address” and a “To address”. Without either of these two items, the email cannot be sent. All, if not most, email applications will automatically populate…

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Quick check here – is anyone reading this?

I am pretty comfortable with being an outlying example of the 1% rule (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1%25_rule_(Internet_culture)), but it is nice to know there’s someone out there?
Linda Booth-Sweeney was always my check and confirmation over at model.report 😀

AND REMEMBER – *anyone* can +BECOME A CONTRIBUTOR+ – just sign up in the top bar here and you can post anything systems-related…


cybernetic serendipity 50th anniversary and Chance and Control exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum (with many pics)



cybernetic serendipity – Twitter Search

Autonomy and Enactivism

Xabier E. Barandiaran

I have finished the last revision of journal paper entitle “Autonomy and Enactivism“. It explores the conceptual tension between the concept of autonomy (self-organized closure of neural activity) and the sensorimotor constitution of cognition. I have long witnesses a generalized confusion, whose roots I explore in the paper, between two major schools of enactivism (the cognitive science paradigm that focuses on sensorimotor coupling and self-organized dynamics of brain, body and environment). On the one hand what I have called “sensorimotor enactivism”, a school that has gained momentum thanks to the work of Alva Noë and Kevin O’Regan on sensorimotor contingencies. On the other hand what I have called “autonomist enactivism” with a particular focus on biological embodiment and the self-organized nature of brain and body. The gap between both schools has being growing recently, partly motivated by the lack of a clear notion of sensorimotorly constituted neurodynamic autonomy…

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Commitment-based or promise-based management – Flores and Winograd plus Vision Consulting (Glennon and Spinosa) later

In the category of ‘is it really systems thinking?’ ‘well, I don’t know, but I’m putting it here anyway’ is commitment-based management. I include a bunch of good links below and would value comments and questions on my commentary here.

This is one of only two management/leadership systems I have *ever* come across which (1) has been actually implemented across whole organisations, in full and (2) has led to significant performance improvements. The other is Jacques’ stratified systems theory and later versions of this in requisite organisation and MacDonald et al System Leadership Theory. Interestingly, both are significantly about clarification of limits and scope of discretion, and engaging discretionary activity. The latter seems to me potentially more ‘complete’ and blending structure, management, and leadership, and technical and social solutions, whereas commitment-based management seems more like an integrative mechanism that could increase performance in any context, but might not shift all those other elements.

I suspect that a third is ‘command and control management’, as originally conceived and named – The Puritan Gift has some potential evidence of this, but I would welcome more.

It can of course be argued – quite powerfully – that some forms of distributed management, as set out for example in Reinventing Organisations, and other documented examples of cooperative and related forms (Gore, that orange company in California). However, while these are great examples of organisational success and sometimes of transformation, I’m not convinced that there is any replicable system (such as Holacracy sets out to be) behind this. Nor am I convinced that the ‘teal’ philosophy or similar provides this kind of potential.

Some will make claims for ‘lean’ and Deming-based management systems. Again, there’s a potential category argument here – are they operations and coordination interventions ‘only’? Do they actual comprise a management/leadership model?

Some might also make claims for Beyond Budgeting, but I think they are weaker in terms of being an actual ‘methodology’. I am sure I am missing some approaches.

Of course, all these are just attempted solutions to the problems of organisational coherence and coordination and managing both hierarchies and networks and their emergent properties, and all are context-dependent and specific. Perhaps I’m just more impressed that commitment-based management and Jacquesian approaches have succeeded in making traditional hierarchies highly functioning. Oh, and ‘agile’ (much like project management) seems to me to be a tactical solution to the same kind of coordination problems.

NB that I do have good evidence that the application of the Viable Systems Model across whole organisations has had similarly impressive effects – but this is more of an organisational structure question than a management or leadership approach, from my perspective

Commitment-based management


Managing By Commitments – 5 Disruptive Practices To Improve Execution
By David Arella – CEO at 4 Spires, Inc.
June 24, 2011 at 5:40pm

Failure to execute is the key 21st century management problem. Current work-norms are dysfunctional. There is one profoundly simple thing we can change that will dramatically improve execution – we need to get better at making and keeping commitments. Simple, but radical practices are described. New supporting systems are coming.

The biggest problem today is not creating visions, nor developing plans. The real problem is a failure to execute. Balls get dropped, deadlines are missed, deliveries are half-done, priorities constantly change, projects overrun budgets, initiatives don’t get accomplished. And it’s easy to see why. We have an overload of messages and communication to wade through. Communication about execution is more and more conducted remotely, not face-to-face or even in real time. Coordination is more difficult as organizations become more and more matrixed, and as the need for collaboration increases, personal accountability becomes more diluted and unclear. Employee engagement is in decline. A return to 20th century command and control hierarchy will not work, as today’s workforce wants more influence over decisions that effect their day to day work, not less. The solution is to develop new processes that both improve execution and simultaneously create more commitment.

Managing by Commitments – A Brief History

Managing by commitments is not a new idea. Commitment Based Management was first introduced as an innovative management practice in the 1980’s with the work of Fernando Flores (UC Berkeley) and Terry Winograd (Stanford). They described a “conversation for action” where two parties make an explicit agreement to deliver a specific outcome by a certain date. The core idea was that the performer was required to negotiate a specific commitment, leading to more buy-in to meeting the commitment and therefore better results and a more collaborative environment. The process of a virtuous conversation between the requester and the performer was defined in three stages: negotiation, delivery, and assessment. Early implementations to enable this process were eventually perceived as too prescriptive and confining, but the core idea offered profound promise.

Twenty-five years later the need for coordination and collaboration has grown many-fold. Accountability is even more diffused. Communication overload has reached epidemic proportions with new and multiple channels operating at once, but the communication is unstructured and not presented in a useful context. Technology advancements enable better access and easier adoption. It’s time to reinvent and reinvigorate management by resurrecting the core principles and practices of Commitment Based Management, but with better implementations.

Commitments Drive Better Execution

There is one profoundly simple thing we can change that will dramatically improve execution – we need to get better at making and keeping commitments. It’s as simple as saying what you’re going to do and then doing what you said. Simple, but not easy.

Scrutiny reveals that our common work norms do not support this principle. In fact, many common work practices actually get in the way. People make vague requests. Actual performers are unspecified. Delivery dates are proposed without confirmation – if they are mentioned at all. Agreements to deliver, when they are obtained, shift and derail without clear dialog. Expressions of satisfaction with the delivery, or of dissatisfaction, are absent. Closure is rarely achieved.

Even worse than these mechanical flaws, we are all familiar with the attendant interpersonal breakdowns. Team members are silent about their cynicism toward a proposed request. Real engagement by employees is lacking, and there is little incentive for contributing any discretionary effort. People work on their favored assignments and leave other tasks to decay. Low trust that deliveries will be met on time forces a need for backup systems and frequent check-ups by “management”.

We all have accepted this dysfunction for a long time. Isn’t it time to disrupt the old system and try something new? Let’s get back to basics and recreate our working relations around the foundational principle of “say what you’re going to do, and do what you said”.

Negotiating a commitment, rather than being coerced or given an assignment has powerful implications. Accountability is increased since the performer has ownership over the commitment (because they had a real part in creating it). Clarity and transparency build trust between both parties. “Requestor” confidence is increased many fold. The quality of the ensuing dialog between performer and requestor removes vague assumptions and instead forms clear and realistic agreements. Our word creates a bond with the other person.

Five Disruptive Practices For Making and Keeping Commitments

Managing by commitments can be readily implemented with a small set of repeatable and observable behaviors. The behaviors are simple, but profound. They are as obvious as they are radical. The following 5 disruptive practices describe what such an approach would look like:

1. Make requests, not assignments. This practice is not limited to hierarchical roles; requests go down, up, and sideways within and outside organizations. Other roles include stakeholders and observers, but let’s be clear on who is being asked to deliver what to whom.

The requester formulates an explicit request (i.e. in the form of a question, not a statement). For example, “Bill, can you get the spec to me by August 1?”; not “Bill, I need the spec by August 1.” Bill responds by making sure he understands the specific details and expectations associated with the request. A clear request is composed with a specific due date.

2. Negotiate clear agreements. This is the part about “saying what you’re going to do.” For delivery dates that you cannot meet, make a counter-promise you can keep. The requester changes from a position of hope (i.e. “I assigned this task to Bill with an August 1 due date, and I’m hoping he will deliver.”), to a position of confidence (i.e. “Bill said an August 1 delivery was really a problem for him, but he committed to getting it to me by August 5”).

Decline the request if you know you will not or cannot deliver. Make no mistake, however, this is a radical notion. Allowing team members at any level to “decline” requests from upper management would be a very disruptive concept in most organizations today. And yet, where performers never have the ability to say NO, there is not the possibility of a committed YES. The practice of negotiating commitments is not one most workers are adept at or even comfortable with; some personal courage is called for. This practice puts the performer more on a peer-to-peer footing with the requester, but yields clear accountability.

3. Keep communication going during the delivery stage. Stuff happens along the way. Agreements are not guarantees that the delivery date will be met, but agreements must be honored in a manner that is far different than failing to deliver on an assignment dropped on your lap without dialog. Having made a promise to deliver, the performer is now obliged to alert their customer as soon as anything comes up that may interfere with meeting their agreement. An observable hallmark of this practice is early notice of potential problems with meeting a commitment.

4. Present the deliverable explicitly. The performer makes a clear statement saying “Here is what I said I would deliver” or “This is why I could not deliver”. This is the essence and evidence of accountability. In our current work norms, this step is frequently “fudged”. Deliveries that are nearly complete slide in more or less on the day they were hoped for. It is rare for a performer to make a clear statement that today I am delivering on the agreement we made.

5. When the requester, always acknowledge and assess the delivery. Honesty and truth demand an assessment as to whether the delivery met the original expectations. Answering the question – were you satisfied? – completes the cycle and assures closure. This underutilized practice is the minimum quid pro quo to the effort of the performer and serves to represent the customer’s accountability to honor the agreement. Moreover, these are the “golden moments” when feedback can enhance both future performance and trust. End-of-year performance reviews have lost much of their value, and this practice heightens the value of more continuous performance feedback.

[a little more in the original]

[prime European based proponents and appliers of the model]

Excellent Art Kleiner piece on Flores:

Harvard Business Review articles:

The original thinking as from Fernando Flores

pdf overview

A video:

Participatory Mapping: presenting spatial knowledge of local communities

[Someone has asked me about Participatory Mapping – which seems systems thinking-adjacent, or practice-related at least – does anybody know it well and want to recommend technology or methodology? Benjamin]


Participatory Mapping

What is Participatory Mapping?

Participatory mapping – also called community-based mapping – is a general term used to define a set of approaches and techniques that combines the tools of modern cartography with participatory methods to represent the spatial knowledge of local communities. It is based on the premise that local inhabitants possess expert knowledge of their local environments which can be expressed in a geographical framework which is easily understandable and universally recognised. Participatory maps often represent a socially or culturally distinct understanding of landscape and include information that is excluded from mainstream or official maps. Maps created by local communities represent the place in which they live, showing those elements that communities themselves perceive as important such as customary land boundaries, traditional natural resource management practices, sacred areas, and so on.


What criteria is there to recognise and denote community maps? 

Participatory mapping is defined by the process of production.The processes used to create the maps can be as valuable as the maps themselves. Participatory maps are planned around a common goal and a strategy for use and are often made with input from an entire community in an open and inclusive process. The higher the level of participation by all members of the community, the more beneficial the outcome because the final map will reflect the collective experience of the group producing the map.

Participatory mapping is a product that represents the agenda of the community. Participatory mapping is map production undertaken by communities to show information that is relevant and important to their needs and is mainly for their use.

Participatory mapping produces maps which depict local knowledge and information.The maps contain a community’s place names, symbols, scales and priority features that represent local knowledge systems.

Participatory mapping is not defined by the level of compliance with formal cartographic conventions. Participatory maps are not confined by formal media; a community map may be a drawing in the sand or may be incorporated into a sophisticated computer-based GIS (geographic information system). Whereas regular maps seek conformity, community maps embrace diversity in presentation and content. That said, to be useful for outside groups such as state authorities, the closer the maps follow recognised cartographic conventions, the greater the likelihood that they will be seen as effective communication tools.

(CTA and IIED, 2006)

Why is it useful? 

In recent years, there has been a growing effort to promote community engagement in decision-making processes concerning natural resource management. Participatory mapping has emerged as a powerful tool that allows remote and marginalised communities to represent themselves spatially, bringing their local knowledge and perspectives to the attention of governmental authorities and decision-makers. For this reason, participatory mapping is commonly used to create maps that represent land and resource use patterns, hazards, community values and perceptions, to gather information on traditional knowledge and practices, to collect data for assessments or monitoring, to present alternative scenarios and to empower and educate stakeholders.


MappingForRights, an initiative of the Rainforest Foundation UK (RFUK) and local partners, is intended to enable forest communities themselves to demonstrate their presence in the forest; decision-makers and the private sector to take account of and recognise this presence; and to assist the international community in designing programmes concerned with those rights and ensure that forest communities are equitable beneficiaries of future developments.

Since it was launched in 2011, it has supported hundreds of forest communities across the region to produce maps of their lands and resources covering over five million hectares. In 2016, MappingForRights was recognised by the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) as part of the UN Momentum for Change awards.

View this short video to find out more about participatory mapping in the Congo Basin


Source: Participatory Mapping: presenting spatial knowledge of local communities

On Evaluating the Scientific Contribution of the Apollo Moon Missions Via Information Theory: A Study of the Scientist-Scientist Relationship – Mitroff and Mason | Management Science

[Via David Ing. Academic paywall, unfortunately]

On Evaluating the Scientific Contribution of the Apollo Moon Missions Via Information Theory: A Study of the Scientist-Scientist Relationship

Published Online:https://doi.org/10.1287/mnsc.20.12.1501

This paper describes the difficulties in evaluating large-scale scientific programs. These difficulties are illustrated through a single case study of the Apollo moon program. The paper describes some of the results of a three and a half year investigation into the beliefs of 42 of the most eminent scientists who studied the moon rocks. The effect of the Apollo missions on the beliefs of the scientists with respect to certain key scientific hypotheses is measured by means of information theory. The paper shows why greater collaborative efforts between the physical and the social sciences are required if there are to develop better tools of evaluation, and ultimately, if we are to develop more informed models of science. The study [Mitroff, Ian I. 1974. The Subjective Side of Science: A Philosophical Enquiry into the Psychology of the Apollo Moon Scientists. Elsevier, forthcoming.] on which this paper is based documents the tremendous role that “irrational” factors play in the attainment of scientific objectivity. We need better models of science that are based, if only in part, on what scientists actually do.

Source: On Evaluating the Scientific Contribution of the Apollo Moon Missions Via Information Theory: A Study of the Scientist-Scientist Relationship | Management Science