How can we change the world? Exactly – join us and we’ll see!

‘to understand is to know what to do’ Wittgenstein

‘I can only know what I should do if I can first answer the question: of what story, or stories, do I find myself a part?’ MacIntyre

If you follow me, you might have heard this thing called ‘systems thinking’ or ‘complexity’ or ‘cybernetics’. It’s about:

-> knowing that to do anything, we create a frame and make sense of the picture inside – how the patterns form and connect. And knowing that redrawing that frame will allow us to see differently

-> a set of core, often counterintuitive ‘laws’ which seem to illuminate aspects of *how the world really is*

This is *humbling* stuff – because it makes you realise that the world is infinitely complex and that everyone has their own unique perspective.

And it’s powerful, practical knowledge of how to work to achieve shared outcomes in complexity.

**An invitation**

If you’d like to hang out with me and explore this, there are loads of opportunities over the next few weeks – details in the reply.

‘A cybernetician is a man who thinks about what could have happened, but did not’ Ashby

–>> what is one insight that changed the way *you* saw the world?

#complexity #systemsthinking #cybernetics #sensemaking

ross ashby thinking cap

FIVE chances to hang out with me cybernetically in the next few weeks – I’d be honoured if you’d join!

NEXT WEEK – The systemic leadership summit 2021 is a pretty amazing opportunity to hear a fantastic group of speakers (and me). Attendance is FREE on the day and you can listen back for 48 hours.
SIGN UP HERE: (affiliate link if you decide to get the upgraded package) hashtag#sls2021

For more background, see:

MONDAY – I’m presenting at the SCiO open meeting (free) on the ‘four quadrants of thinking threats’ you face if you enter into a powerful field link this:

For more background on the four quadrants, see

Monday 25 January – our informal online systems networking, hosted by me

The SERVANT LEADERSHIP SUMMIT in May – not me – but other amazing speakers – quote AntlerBoy10 to get 5% discount to you, and 5% donation to Medecins sans Frontieres.

Monday 1 February – Systems Practice development day (£20 annual membership required)

And look out for me chatting to @Dov Tsal in February too!

Join the SCiO – systems and complexity in organisation – informal Slack channel, and informal networking event Jul 20, 2020 6:30-8:30PM London time

Join the SCiO – systems and complexity in organisation – informal Slack group at

#systems #complexity #cybernetics #organisation
(Note that this is informal, open to everyone, will not be archiving any messages other than 10,000 most recent, and as it’s open, should not be used for confidential or sensitive information.

And there’s an informal networking event – open to all:

Jul 20, 2020 6:30-8:30PM London time

Register in advance for this meeting:
After registering, you will receive a confirmation email containing information about joining the meeting.

Bringing together some recent and old threads on #systemsthinking is #complexity is #cybernetics

Mahoo, @SystemsNinja, asked me (possibly michievously):

Hey @antlerboy tell us why complexity thinking is systems thinking, is cybernetics? Nerd face

Here’s my reply:

You tryna stop me working, or what??

I have some of this prepped, off of facebook, so here goes…

Complexity, cybernetics, and systems thinking are an extended family recognisable by a whole set of similarities (and some controversies) which draw from the same roots and influences, and share the same governing intent – understanding.

My ‘acid test’ is that I believe you cannot make a distinction between systems thinking and complexity which will not ‘sweep in’ to each ‘discipline’ something avowedly part of the ‘other’, and ‘sweep’ out from each something which claims it belongs.

some of the roots are demonstrated here:
some quotes on the theme #complexitythinking is #systemsthinking (is #cybernetics)

Look at the Macy conferences, for a start. Look at the overlaps between the early thinkers, the shared thinking, the shared learning societies.
The field is transdisciplinary (and indeed meta-disciplinary), so naturally it has diverse expression and form.

So, why do people believe there is a difference? There are indeed tribes wearing each of the three badges (and some who wear more than one) – and if you squint, you can see some differences between them. But it relies on squinting – narrowing down to what you want to focus on.

Well, there are many reasons why it suits people to say ‘my work is *this* and not *this*’ (it’s the rule of tables – if someone has a table saying ‘left side old, bad, right side new, good’ – they are trying to sell you something).

We might call it ‘wrecking synergy to stake out territory. A nice piece on that concept is here: (formatting not good as exhumed from the internet graveyard)

A good example of that is Castellani’s ‘complexity map’, which is to me a piece of fundamentally poor scholarship for this reason

There are others who I won’t name either because they’re nice people out to learn, or so argumentative as to not allow me to get to bed. (But if you search the archives for ‘curmudgeons’ and ‘popularisers’ you will find some materiel).

What tends to happen (other than simply eliding or ignoring bits of the history which show the overlap across the family resemblance) is that you pick a somewhat populist, simplistic version of the thing you want to do down, you straw-man it a bit further, and thereby produce a strangulated version of the ‘other’ (and announce This Is Wot Everyone Kno as The Thing). Then you post five or seven or 13 points showing why your brand overcomes and surpasses (usually not encompasses) the weaker, wrong part of the family. And that way we are all a little the poorer. Note that there are, in fact, many members of our extended family we potentially aren’t *that* proud of, bless their hearts… but we tolerate them and recognise they don’t represent any particular chunk of the family tree in full.

The risk of this sort of thing (‘down with this sort of thing!’) is what caused me to create the ‘four quadrants of thinking threats’ – systems / complexity / cybernetics thinkers are prone to move into one of the four corners – it’s imperative we try to full ourselves towards the middle…

(this has a modicum of discussion about the quadrants: )

See also for a magisterial take on the topic, the first comment in this link , Gerald Midgely’s excellent facebook comment at

…The constraints on that topic make a huge difference to the possible outcomes that could be concluded – so much so that diametrically opposite findings would arise from different ways of bounding the understandings of Systems and Complexity. In my view, a great PhD on this would have to start by acknowledging the diversity of paradigms (and perspectives within the paradigms) in both fields, so this is not a simplistic question of “theory A says X and theory B says Y”. So, for example, there are systems methodologies that are strong on exploring multiple perspectives, and others that are weak on this. Likewise, there are complexity approaches that are both strong and weak on perspective-taking. So a really strong analysis would, I think, look at the diversity; the various aims that the diversity of approaches are trying to achieve; the various critiques of the different approaches; and then map each approach onto that territory of aims and critiques. Once that has been done, it should be possible to look for patterns – identify how the two research fields differ in terms of number and diversity of approaches, aims that are unique in one field compared to the other, aims that are common across both fields, aims that are very strongly featured in one field, etc. If you’re serious about doing a PhD on this (or a related topic), we could talk by skype. I should flag straight away though that we don’t have funded scholarships. I have a bunch of PhD students, but most are studying part-time and paying for themselves.

For some practical examples, have a look at these two papers and tell me what you learn about the difference or not:

A good chapter IIRC:

A good series of papers IIRC:

And an enquiry:

So. All three labels are multiply defined and probably ‘essentially contested’. And, at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter – there are a bunch of good ideas, which can also steer you wrong – let’s use them.

Where it hurts (us all) is when people feel a need to define their work by doing ‘systems thinking’ down – explicitly or implicitly, subtly or not – in comparing themselves to the model they hold of some crap form of systems thinking. So in fighting against this nonsense, I’m partly creating the pain which I think we should all avoid by doing our work and not putting down other disciplines. But it’s a double bind – you let the mud stick as if you deserve it, or you get down in the mud and wrastle…

I would that I have nothing ‘against’ any person who chooses to label themselves as complexity; I love to hear about and explore and share their work (and will critique it or not based on what my limited understanding suggests it deserves – lord knows there are some poor, limited, self-limiting attempts at systems thinking too – I try to help nudge them to deeper awareness always). I *believe this is all part of the same learning and exploration*, and it turns out to be much harder to make an argument for overlap across and distinctions within-not-between, than it is to straw-man something and define your thing as different. Every time I get into this argument, I discover that my antagonist has picked one view of one set of practices, and held this up as *being* the whole.

And there *are*, of course, some more or less unsatisfactory ways you could try to make a distinction (subject to the arguments above) – at a SCiO group presentation, the only true distinction people form all three ‘camps’ could divine was a set of emotional biases of practitioners. But any definition of ‘complexity’ will fall short by some standards – as I’m arguing – so I won’t go into that here. (SCiO is the systems practitioner organisation – – formerly Systems and Cybernetics in Organisation, now Systems and Complexity in Organisation cos it is undeniably trendier and why not?)

I’ll end with McCulloch on the Macy conferences:
“Even then, working in our shirt sleeves for days on end, at every meeting …. we were unable to behave in a familiar friendly or even civil manner. The first five meetings were intolerable. Some participants left in tears never to return. Margaret Mead records that in the heat of battle she broke a tooth and did not even notice it until after the meeting.”
There has never been an agreed definition, and there probably never will be.

A thousand years ago, you asked ‘Hey @antlerboy, tell us why complexity thinking is systems thinking, is cybernetics?’. The answer is there is no ‘is’ of identity (I’m borrowing Wittgestein’s ‘family resemblances’ concept), but the overlaps are so many and varied, as are the distinctions within the field, that meaningful distinctions can really only be made of small subsets across the space – or for polemical reasons.

Er, so why did you ask?

I can’t I’m being a public intellectual

What is cybernetics?

Someone asked me this.

Cybernetics is…
The official definition from Wiener is ‘the scientific study of control and communication in the animal and the machine.” (This gets us into a lot of trouble with people for whom ‘control’ is a bogeyman).

…the study of purposeful (or goal directed) behaviour
(Sometimes adding ‘in complex situations’ though in fact it’s in any situation)
…’the art of steering’ or ‘steersmanship’ from the Greek root in kubernetes (it’s still the best metaphor, I think)
…this links to various definitions around ‘governance’ or governing etc
…the study of circular causality (also sometimes self-directed control)
..the study of recursion
…the study of what might have happened, but didn’t
…or versions using regulation or self-regulation as the key…
Self-correction is also central, as is explorative creation and maintenance of meaning.

Wikipedia has Umpleby’s list of definitions which is good:

Pangaro’s is good too:

Britannica cites unusual ‘key people’ but is good

Principia Cybernetica offers a good one: ‘organization independent of the substrate in which it is embodied.’
(Principia Cybernetica describes itself as philosophy, seeking to answer the big questions of life; I think thereby it might fall foul of not seeing the circular, embodied and self-referential nature of language – which usually means these are not meaningful ‘questions’ – this is why I think Wittgenstein was a cybernetician and why I get such a big kick out of which I think is on the same tracks)

And Clemson’s ‘What is management cybernetics’ ( cites Beer: “the science of effective organization”. Effective, of course, relates to viability, to ‘independent of the substrate’, to steering, governing, and to *intentional* behaviour (which I’d prefer to goal-directed or ‘purposeful’).

For ‘what is science’, I get “the intellectual and practical activity encompassing the systematic study of the structure and behaviour of the physical and natural world through observation and experiment.”
So science can only be achieved through cybernetic means, of course, being purposeful, but I’d say that cybernetics is a particular type of science focused on effective behaviour (using the above), and here effective includes the second-order cybernetic concept of seeing the observer as an intervener in the system, and the potential of self-reflection.


Why I hope we could do better than the Castellani complexity map

In response to this question on twitter (click link to see the full thread)…

…some of my thoughts on the challenges of the (rich in content, developed over the years) complexity map that is very popular. One of a continuing theme of me noodling on points of origin and confluence around #cybernetics, #complexity, and #systemsthinking – in fact, one broad field, I think…

So, first of all, what do I know? I’m not an academic, though I’ve dabbled at playing at it. I’m obsessive/passionate, but I haven’t done all the reading (few have), but anyway… (and I’ve included here learning that I have got from others better qualified than me, but all mistakes are mine, I haven’t named them because it’s a series of ongoing conversations and I don’t think they want to be engaged in pointless controversy).

Also, it’s a harder argument to make because as I’m arguing *congruence and continuity*, rather than difference, and people are used to argument about distinctions. My view is that #systemsthinking, #cybernetics, and #complexity are all part of the same family, with the same roots, the same family resemblances, and wherever you try to make a divide it is going to be proven artificial, because it is going to sweep *in* many things avowedly under a different label, and sweep *out* many things under the same label. More of complexity is realist, more of systems thinking is dispositional, more of cybernetics is dispositional, whatever.

Most people trying to make the distinction simply are sweeping in what they like, paper-tigering the rest, and therefore mischaracterising the ‘out group’ and giving ahistorical and unscientific boundaries. The distinction is often made in ignorance, but sometimes intentionally ‘wrecking synergy to stake out territory’, and either way, it does scholarship in the field a disservice.

Good word on this from Gerald Midgely

This is not to say that there are not tribes, sticking to their narrow ways in happy ignorance or denial of the systems/cybernetics/complexity world outside their window… nor that there aren’t truly intellectually curious and open people who see no boundaries and find value across the whole domain – in fact, most people who don’t already have an intellectual stake in seeing boundaries, and some who do, see the value across the piece also.

But the four quadrants of thinking threats are always there!

On the maps itself, I’d say that ‘systems’ is a common property of all circles in Castellani’s map, even more than complexity.


  • The claim that complexity theory came up with the ideas of self-organisation, autopoeisis and emergence is simply untrue, it feels like blatant appropriation of existing work – likewise Bak’s ‘self organised criticality’ (he coined the term but not the concept)
  • Strange attractors – there’s something like this too in Ashby’s Design for a brain, and of course Heinz von F’s eigenforms, 1981.
  • Timelines and connections are dubious (but – to be fair – admittedly simplified and ‘one perspective’). And also it gets very mushy in the 21st Century – too soon to attempt anything scholarly here, one might say.
  • Nonlinear in late 70s? Seems ridiculous.
  • Scaling and self-similarity in the 1980s? These are all a lot earlier.
  • Weaver in ‘complex systems theory’ not cybernetics? Yes, he defined ‘complexity’ in 1948 (not the late 60s or early 70s as it seems here), but he was a core cybernetician.
  • Pitts too.
  • And for some reason, Stafford Beer is placed in the 90s and under systems science, not cybernetics?
  • No mention of the modern origins of all of this in the Macy conferences?
  • No mentioned of Santa Fe being predicated on the work of Ashby in the 1940s
  • Prigogine was the president of the international society of systems science…
  • Would be nice to see Professor Derek Pugh who we think first coined ‘systems thinking’ c1970.
  • Can’t see cellular automata in there – von Neumann 1950s, Varela 1988 and Liber Sogya, 16th Century (

More historic quotes here

Our attempt to honestly attempt a mapping of the concepts, with precedents and antecedents, including thinkers, at – but very incomplete and partial as of present!

Bunch of maps which I tend on first glance and intuitively to think are more rigorous here:

Patrick Hoverstadt and others are shortly coming out with a book on the core systems laws, which could be hugely impactful. Meanwhile, a limited version of these from is more or less in the public domain ( through workshops and development of the systems thinking practitioner apprenticeship –

Or you could look to Len Troncale’s systems process theories and his set of isomophisms – see – I’d love to get Len’s full slides from the Bertalanffy lecture at ISSS 2019.

Or go back to Gerald Midgley’s encyclopedia, or the other mega-systems reference guide.

And David Ing gives a masterful meta-perspective overview of the scale of the task in this 2011 presentation

My point is that unless something uses some of these principles, it’s either not systems thinking – or it’s something *amazing* and new(ish). If it relies principally on these core ideas, it’s systems thinking(/cybernetics/complexity).

What any serious attempt in this space shows, IMHO, is the unity across and diversity within the field of cybernetics / systems thinking / complexity. i.e. if it works with, builds on, or adds to key systems laws, it’s in the field. If it doesn’t, it isn’t. And the rest is about predispositions, applications, interests, emotional tendencies, and tribalism.



some quotes on the theme #complexitythinking is #systemsthinking (is #cybernetics)

Lewes 1875: ‘The emergent is unlike its components insofar as these are incommensurable, and it cannot be reduced to their sum or their difference.’

Smuts 1890 – 1926: ‘the tendency in nature to form wholes, that are greater than the sum of its parts, through creative evolution’

‘One of the two most important ideas for the next millennium’ – Einstein

Bertalanffy developed the concepts of open systems in 1934

Ashby’s Self Organising Principle: ‘Complex systems organise themselves’

Beer: ‘the output of a complex probabilistic system (such as a society) is a function of a self regulating, self organizing organization …in which regulatory power is not vested in a ‘controller’ but in the structure of that organization itself.’

Socio-technical systems is the study of how social groups self-organise

Autopoiesis is self-organisation

The viable systems model works with autopoietic & self-organising systems

Meadows: ‘self-organizing, nonlinear feedback systems are inherently unpredictable. They are not controllable.’

Ashby’s 1st Circular Causality Principle: ‘Given positive feedback, radically different end states are possible from the same initial conditions’ Skyttner, 2001

Darkness Principle: ‘No system can be known completely’ Clemson, 1984 (ie ‘compressability’)

Stafford Beer: ‘It is terribly important to appreciate that some things remain obscure to the bitter end.’

Stafford Beer ‘Instead of trying to specify it in full detail, you specify it only somewhat. You then ride on the dynamics of the system in the direction you want to go.’

Smuts: ‘A whole, which is more than the sum of its parts, has something internal, some inwardness of structure and function…some internality of nature that constitutes that ‘more”

Ashby: ‘the characteristic structural and behavioural patterns in a complex system are primarily a result of the interactions amongst the system parts.’

Beer: ‘Relation is the stuff of system’

Ackoff : ‘Never improve any portion of the system unless is also improves the whole.’

Iberal: ‘System stability is possible only if the system’s relaxation time is shorter than the mean time between disturbances.’

Beer: ‘If we cannot adapt, we cannot evolve. Then the instability threatens to be like the wave’s instability – catastrophic’
4th Principle of organization: ‘The operation of the first three principles must be cyclically maintained through time without hiatus or lags.’

Canon: ‘A system survives only so long as all essential variables are maintained within their physiological limits.’

Ashby: ‘The upper limit on the amount of regulation achievable is given by the variety of the regulatory system divided by the variety of the regulated system’

Varela: what is the meaning of ‘wholeness?’ This relates to two key processes. One is the process of recognizing the stable properties of wholes, by interacting with them. The other is the recognition that the stability we see arises from the self-referential, mutual, reciprocal interactions that constitute the system. Thus, the three notions I mentioned are distinction, stability and closure, and are really one and the same.

#complexitythinking, #cybernetics, #systemsthinking

Designing Freedom: Stafford Beer – full book free (and more) on


Source: Designing Freedom : Stafford Beer : Free Download, Borrow, and Streaming : Internet Archive


Also – for example:
On The Design Of Stable Systems
by gerald weinberg, daniela weinberg

An Approach To Cybernetics
by gordon pask

Engineeringn Cybernetics
by robert glorioso

The Structure Of Awareness
by vladimir lefebvre

#cybernetics, #cybersyn, #dankaudiostash

Systems Community of Inquiry is back up!
THE place for all things #systemsthinking, #cybernetics, #complexity and such (if it’s missing – join up and add it!)

Complexity in health policy. Brief notes – Greg Fell

A great overview and introduction to #complexity (and therefore #systemsthinking… and #cybernetics) in #public health

part one linked below –

part two –
Complexity in health policy, part 2. Actions to take & responses to complex problems

part three –
Interventions to influence SYSTEM change. Complexity part 3

Sheffield DPH

Complexity in public health

I went to an excellent meeting in the Spring at the Health Foundation led by Prof Rutter on complexity. It’s the new “thing” don’t you know. It made my brain hurt. A lot.

Much to reflect on. This blog covers the points I took from the meeting, and subsequent reflections

Part 1 – what’s the issue. some background, some definitions and the problem that is the starting premise

1. What do we mean by complexity

A complex system cannot be explained merely by breaking it down into its component parts because those parts are interdependent: elements interact with each other, share information and combine to produce systemic behaviour.

They exhibit ‘non-linear’ dynamics produced by feedback loops in which some forms of energy or action are dampened (negative feedback) while others are amplified (positive feedback).

It is impossible to precisely predict what changes might happen as a…

View original post 1,098 more words

#complexity, #cybernetics, #public, #systemsthinking