Do You Have To Understand Everything About A Situation Before Acting?


Monday, 5.42am

Sheffield, U.K.

There comes a stage, however, as the system becomes larger and larger, when the reception of all the information is impossible by reason of its sheer bulk. Either the recording channels cannot carry all the information, or the observer, presented with it all, is overwhelmed. When this occurs, what is he to do? The answer is clear: he must give up any ambition to know the whole system. His aim must be to achieve a partial knowledge that, though partial over the whole, is none the less complete within itself, and is sufficient for his ultimate practical purpose – W. Ross Ashby

Many of the comments I see on social media relating to Systems Thinking talk about something called Viable Systems.

I’ve come across this a few times and found it quite hard to get to grips with, so I’m going to spend a little time working through what’s out there to see if it makes sense this time.

The reason for doing this is to see if it’s a useful way to think about the situations we face all the time – the everyday choices, both big and small that we have to deal with.

And the place to start, it seems, is with Ross Ashby.

Understanding variety

It’s pretty obvious that there are a lot of things out there in the world – and there are a lot of ways they can be.

What does that mean?

Take a lightbulb, for example.

From one point of view, a light in your house can be in one of two states – it’s on or off.

The day before yesterday, the bulb in my dining room was off – but that was because it was broken.

That’s a third state.

I replaced the bulb, but the new one was broken as well – for some reason I had carefully stored the last broken one in its box, presumably so I could order a new one but had forgotten to do that.

A fourth state.

I replaced the bulb, a halogen one with an LED – so a different type of bulb.

A fifth state.

Yesterday, the bulb didn’t work again, and that was because the power had gone off.

A sixth state.

In this example you see something that initially looks simple – something where you believe you can understand everything about it starting to increase in complexity, increase in the possible states it can take.

A state, really, is a particular situation, something that is possible.

And if a lightbulb can be in so many states just think about everything else in life – just how many variations are possible in the way things could be.

This is variety – and Ashby’s argument is that if you really want to be able to deal with something you have to be able to deal with its variety.

And that’s something your brain is designed to do, it will figure out how to survive when the lightbulb fails without going through an existential crisis.

We’re looking for the main things, not the one thing

Now, we just can’t deal with everything out there, every fact, every bit of information – we’d simply explode.

And so our brains are very good at doing to things – filtering out stuff that doesn’t seem to matter and focusing on stuff that does.

In the wording of systems thinking in this area you have attenuators and amplifiers.

I’m going to stay away from the jargon, actually, because it doesn’t really help apart from giving your new words for things you already know happen.

Essentially, in any given situation, you have to get your head around what are the main things.

Now that’s easy if your situation is a point – a dot, a single thing.

For example, if you’re playing basketball and you have to take a free throw – there’s nothing in that moment except you and the basket and how you take the shot.

Shortly after, things will explode in complexity, but at that moment the world stops and waits for you to get done.

But most situations are more like the shape in the picture above, all blobby and with bits poking out everywhere.

And if you want to do something that involves working with that kind of shape you can’t focus on just one bit, you need to understand it in all its messy complexity.

And how much of that you need to do depends on what you’re trying to do.

As the quote that starts this post explains you need to know enough to do what you want to do.


I said some of this was obvious.

So, where do we go wrong?

Understanding regulation and control

Warren Buffett wrote that a management that always makes the numbers will at some point be tempted to make up the numbers.

What does that mean?

The way we monitor things these days is through numbers – the number of sales, the number of calories, the amount of billable time on a client.

That’s because we have learned what numbers do – we need profit to be positive, we need to take in fewer calories than we need a day to lose weight.

In Ashby’s mathematical treatment you look at this from the view of set theory.

There a set of things that can happen.

And for each of those things there’s a set of responses you can take.

The responses you take result in outcomes – that can be good or bad or near or far from a desired value.

For example, there’s a virus going around at the moment.

You could choose to go to a party or you could choose to stay at home.

In one case you could meet friends and have a great time and maybe catch the virus.

Or you could stay home, be safe from the virus and maybe get pushed out of your friends group because you aren’t engaging.

What happens will depend on what you do.

Unless you have a peek into the future.

Understanding requisite variety

Now, this is where things get a little hazy so you might want to consult original sources for exact definitions but here’s my take on this right now.

Doing something and then waiting to see what happens is a very good and scientific and experimental approach but it’s useless with people.

People don’t do things in the same way all the time, they act with purpose and don’t follow the rules of physics in the way that balls dropping from a height do.

With people you can try and make a call on what they will do in a situation.

In the virus example above, if you think your friends will stop talking to you because you don’t do stuff with them, then perhaps they aren’t very good friends – but maybe you need them because of the situation you’re in more than you fear getting ill.

Or, in an organization change project, you need to think about what different people will do to get your plan approved – how the board will think, how managers will react, what IT will say, what facilities will say.

If you want to come up with a plan that has a chance of working you’ll need to engage with the main players and understand how they will respond and then work out what will work in that situation.

Still seems obvious right?

But how many times do people start with a single message or get given a target and then set off hell-bent on achieving that target without really understanding the system they are operating in, the complexity of their environment?

Don’t you see that happening again and again?

Then again, you can’t understand everything, maybe you just need to focus on the next thing, but try and get ahead of the information.

Use your eyes and ears

Later on in Ashby’s paper on Requisite variety and its implications for the control of complex systems he puts aside the math and starts talking sense.

You’ve seen those bugs that are programmed to move around and when they bump into something move backwards and forwards until they bump their way away from the obstacle and head off.

In the real world if the obstacle is a tiger and you repeatedly bump into it your odds of surviving that encounter go down dramatically.

Which is why if you can see and hear the danger before you bump into it you have a chance to climb a tree or run away.

When it comes to your life and your business what this means is you need to look beyond what is immediately in front of you.

For example, you can look at your bathroom scales every day and see the weight changing, perhaps in the wrong direction.

But if you want to control that what you have to do is focus on what causes the change in weight, where you take in and burn energy rather than what the result is in weight.

Rather than focus on the thing, look at what causes the thing in the first place – use information to your advantage.

And here’s the point that I think I’m getting to after some time.

The way for you to get ahead of things is through the better use of information, through the better use of understanding.

If you have a behavior that is affecting your life you can try stopping that behavior or stop the things that give rise to the behavior.

Like snacking.

You could decide to have fewer snacks, and then you get stressed and the crisp packets get attacked.

Or you could avoid buying crisps at all and then you reach for fruit as a stress-reliever instead.

Or instead of doing a huge amount of work evaluating a possible software solution and then finding that IT will not approve it – you work with IT in the first place to find out what kinds of things they will approve and then decide the best way to respond.

Which might include doing things like outsourcing the task if you can’t get it done internally.

Here’s the takeaway.

Computers may be able to collect and process all the data out there but they still find it hard to deal with variety, to deal with patterns of complexity.

But your brain is designed to do just that.

Together you’re stronger.

So maybe it’s time for us to have a look at how we can use technology and computers to help us understand complex situations better.

Maybe that’s the thing for the next post.


Karthik Suresh

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