Creating sustainability in complex ecosystems
I'm writing because of one particular lesson I learned—we all learned. Early in the course, we used a simulation game to help people have a common, shared experience of interacting in a challenging system environment.
As with many such games, the expected result is that people fail in making the system work. Typically, the debrief is used to help people understand the ways of thinking that led them into trouble and to prepare them for the material that's to come.
Unexpectedly, this class managed their challenges quite sustainably. While their skill wrecked the planned flow of that part of the session, I was really pleased to see their skill in action. We spent some time talking about what made them successful and how that might carry over to real-world situations. Their insights were useful enough that I wanted to share them (with the students' permission) with a larger audience: you.
I first asked what made them succeed in the game and what provided the most challenges.
Goals were the first. While the game tells them the goal they should have, they rapidly realized that focusing on the stated goals would lead to ruin, and so they decided to set a much longer-term goal.
Communications was the second factor. After the first round, they began to spend most of their time huddled in the center of the room, talking animatedly through their decision-making processes instead of working in isolated teams.
They noted that delays provided a key challenge. As they worked to establish trust in the social system they had set up, they were both trusting other teams' commitments and verifying that they were indeed living up to their commitments. That takes time: commitments made today may not show up for quite a while.
Those delay effects were complicated by the natural delays in the system. Without revealing the game we used, I will say that the dynamics of the game included natural delays between actions and results that complicated decision making.
Some noted this seemed analogous to the situation OPEC finds itself in. They rely on mutual agreement to limit production as a way to manage prices. If anyone in OPEC breaks that agreement, the system can collapse. OPEC's problems are complicated by uncertain demand and uncertain prices, factors that had no analogy in our game.
Math skills created another success factor, which some may find surprising. A subset of the players rather immediatedly began developing quite a useful understanding of their system based on a mathematical model they developed. Once others saw that their results were accurate, everyone became driven by the data. Without some in the group being able to pull that off, they would likely not have succeeded.
Interestingly, trust and math worked together. At one point, the analyst team made a numerical error and then made an especial effort to communicate that they had made that error to others so that the others would be able to differentiate that error from a breaking of the trust relationship. Apologies were key. Information and the lack of information thus played a key role in the group's success. Even then, it took time for the others to regain their trust in the analysts' team.
Playing into this was the lack of external shareholders. Everyone on the teams had a serious take in the workings of the game; no one was in it just for the "money." Similarly, there were no new entrants into the field who might have upset the cartel relationship they had crafted.
I then asked them what they'd advise people in the real world.
Collaboration was the first clear answer. Work together across groups to align goals and actions.
They then said, "knowledge is power." After a bit of reflection and revision, they revised that to "timely, transferrable, actionable knowledge is power."
They felt it was important for everyone to be clear on a vision.
They would encourage people to watch their egos and to be visibly trustworthy.
At one point, in an attempt to test the strength of their commitment (okay, as an attempt to derail their commitment), I as facilitator announced I was the government and was giving them something they really didn't want. (To be accurate, that idea came from Anne Murray Allen, the executive director of the program, who was running the simulation computer.) For a while, I felt as if I were about to experience the French Revolution, as some rather emotionally argued for standing up to government and refusing my help, a bit of resistance I wasn't accepting.
As a result, their last bit of advice was to "Don't trust the wisdom of government, of the private sector, ... of either." In other words, test the data and the reasoning yourselves instead of blindly accepting what others say is good for you.
This was an intense and very exciting two-day workshop. I think those in the class learned a lot; I know I learned as they taught themselves and me (and now perhaps you) how to make sustainability work.
Perhaps I'll see some of you there next year.