1.1 Rivals as complex patterns

We live in a hyperlinked and interdependent world, in which new opportunities and constraints emerge in ever accelerating fashions. As our technological, economic, and institutional webs continue to grow denser, the problems we face seem to take on similar web-like forms. Whether leading a business, a country, a city, or a social campaign, our biggest challenges can never be boiled down to any single cause or player. Rather, they consist of a wide range of agents, distributed across extensive social networks, and deeply entangled within the very fabric of our social ecology. In other words, they are complex, making real sense of them requires us to explore the multitude of forces that drive and recreate them on a daily bases.

Take for example the issue of social mobility and meritocracy. The idea that positions of power should be allocated according to individual abilities, rather than by family connections, gender, or race, has long stood at the core of modern societies. While family and community backgrounds have always influenced an individual’s ability to fulfil his or her potential, the fact that individual talent and drive tend to be randomly distributed across societies, has enabled considerable social mobility throughout the industrialized age. And yet, in January 2015 the Economist published a fascinating and unsettling article under the title of “Hereditary Meritocracy”[1] exploring the self-reproducing attribute of America’s elite, where “the children of the rich and powerful are increasingly well-suited to earning wealth and power themselves”. In this case, it is not nepotism or prejudice that have undermined the principle of meritocracy, but rather the fact that individual talent itself is becoming more economically and socially generated. In other words, it is the socio-economic background of a person that increasingly determines their seemingly objective and justifiable qualities.

This growing global phenomenon can be explained by a number of different yet interconnected socio-economic shifts. For example, the decline of manufacturing, the rise of the service industries, and a continuous specialization into ever more sophisticated market niches, have heightened the importance of professional expertise. These have increased the market value of a good education, whilst making previous alternative routes for smart individuals, such as starting at the bottom and learning on the job, much less likely avenues for success. It is rare to hear today of “mailroom moguls” - company bosses such as Dick Grasso, George Bernheimer, or Helen Gurley Brown[2] who have started out in the mythical mailroom, building their way up to the top.

Another shift has been the empowerment of women and an ever-decreasing gender gap. While a highly welcome and long fought for systemic change, it also holds some unintended consequences for the manner in which human resources are distributed across society as well as the very structure of social networks. Today’s academically educated men have a much higher probability of marrying academically educated women, in what has been romantically termed by economists as ‘assortative mating’. Such couples inevitably enjoy higher family incomes, while also sharing a similar familiarity with education-centred lifestyles. Signs of this can be seen through the almost crushing competition over sought after kinder garden places, not to mention the gruelling preparations of young children for school interviews, bringing some parents to the brink of mental collapse.

Driven by ever expanding working hours, as well as changing attitudes towards children’s playtime, duo-academic couples tend to spend significantly more time and money on extracurricular activities – from Lego leagues to Mandarin clubs. These are not merely the new status symbols of modern parenting. Pre-school education has been shown to be a significant determinant in a child’s high-school performance[3], while even the amount of talking parents do with their babies has been shown to have significant effect on their development. Such cognitive gaps start building up at a very young age as even “at three, children born into professional families have heard thirty million more words than those from a poor background”[4].

These emerging gaps are carried into the rest of a child’s schooling life, in which proactive parents and larger school funding attained through private resources, inevitably enable a small number of schools to overtake the majority of others. Thus, when it comes to university applications, it is no wonder that kids coming from such backgrounds will, on average, hold the upper hand. This, especially when required to reflect budding well-rounded, and socially skilled personalities, through early exercises at self-marketing such as the notorious “personal statement”. In the US, traditions of “legacy preferences” for children of alumni only exasperate this trend even further.

This stickiness of the economic ladder continues with the cognitive biases and working habits of recruiters and the hiring committees of top firms – the gate keepers into the 1%[5]. These tend to focus on Ivy League universities, interpreting merit through social cues that accentuate correspondence with existing organisational culture, similarity in experience, and in attitudes, which at best unconsciously lends themselves to “people like us” biases. Thus, at the end of the day, children of the elite are of much higher probability to actually display the socially constructed merits for re-entering elite circles. Overall ‘hereditary meritocracy’ has developed over many years, driven by many different yet interdependent economic, cultural, political and technological shifts. Even though the benefitting groups are obvious, this systemic phenomenon has not been intentionally created through some coordinated action. There is no Bond-like villain or secret organization pulling the strings. In fact, there are no real causes as such, but merely a unique combination of conditions that have enabled its emergence.

While systemic in nature, hereditary meritocracy emerged through a bottom up process driven by the evolving behaviours of millions of individuals operating within their own personal context – singles looking for their love match; parents concerned about their children’s education; entrepreneurs thinking up wonderful new educational activities for young children; teachers and school masters raising funds to bring new methods and draw in the best talent to their schools; and recruiters trying to find the most efficient, and many times least risky formulas for finding new employees. Millions of people, making hundreds of mundane, everyday decisions, yet together enabling this new social landscape to form. Such evolutionary processes cannot simply be overturned as they are all part of a complex interconnected system. In the words of Stuart Kaufman, they form a ‘Kantian Whole’ where “the whole exists for and by means of the part, and the part exists for and by means of the whole”[6].

All that being said, hereditary meritocracy as described above is a modern systemic phenomenon not a systemic problem. This is not about semantics but about efficacy. Problems, unlike phenomena embody two further elements – a current context; and an operational intention.

Hereditary meritocracy emerged over many years, shaped and fuelled by a multitude of cultural, economic, political and technological developments across our social ecology, many of which can generally be described as highly beneficial. Transforming it is not about going back in time but rather about identifying the social challenges, costs and deficiencies it creates today – the problematic patterns that currently derive from it. These could be about structured economic inequalities, slowing innovation due to ever increasing homogeneity and conservatism, or growing political tensions in certain sectors or regions. Whatever the problematic pattern, its relevant context will not only be immediate but also player centric - for a complex phenomenon to become a complex ‘problem’ someone must actively work to change it.

A problem is defined as a situation “needing to be dealt with and overcome”[7], hence problems are about action and action can only be taken by people. In this sense, there will never be a single player taking this challenge on for society as a whole, rather hereditary meritocracy will pose different complex problems for different players within the system. For example, within the Ministry of Education it might be a problem of inequality in school funding and geographical allocation of teachers; for the Business Secretary it might be about closing an economic skills gap; for community projects it might be about parenting for early childhood; while for corporations it might be about diversity in recruitment.

Nevertheless, whoever the player may be, and however their unique problem will be defined, it will still encompass the multitude of issues relating to the greater systemic phenomenon as hand, albeit from a specific operational perspective. It will also embody the same complex properties – involving a multitude of players and interdependent forces continuously recreating its negative effects. Thus, each player will have to develop their own unique strategy to overcome the specific complex pattern challenging them. The question is - what kind of strategy can be used to counter complex patterns? To explore this further we must first dive deeper into the nature of patterns and the science that helps explain them.

1.2 Complexity thinking – the science of patterns and the emergence of order

The study of complex adaptive systems developed amongst the natural sciences during the second half of the 20th Century. What emerged was a set of theories loosely comprising a new interdisciplinary field of research concerned with the nature of dynamic systems. The fundamental focus of this new field was to explain how patterns emerge spontaneously, in other words, without central control or top-down design, but rather bottom-up - through the ongoing interactions amongst large numbers of individual elements[8]. Such elements could be molecules in chemical soups creating biochemical reactions, starlings flying in flocks creating beautiful murmuration displays; the neurons in our brains creating patterns of thought and structures of consciousness; and us humans creating everything from languages, to markets, and cities.

In essence, what complexity science has uncovered is a weird and wonderful world within which all systemic patterns, whether in nature or in society, continuously materialize but can never be fully predicted, and where the individual elements comprising them, continuously adapt to their emerging form, while also altering them at the same time.

The key to understanding such complex systems lies in their dynamic nature. The patterns that characterise them emerge through endless individual interactions, a process known as self-organisation. Over time, accumulated individual interactions form some repeating regularities that develop into systemic patterns. Once emerged, these patterns incentivise certain behaviours and constrain others, thereby creating a kind of “chicken and egg” feedback effect.

For example, if individuals across a network exchange bribes and corruption takes hold as a systemic pattern, it will incentivise even more people to adopt similar behaviours, while constrain those who might still wish to stay clean. As more individuals are involved or simply accept corruption as part of their network interactions, the pattern will only grow stronger. At the same time, this pattern still remains a dynamic outcome rather than a fixed structure. It will only last as long as individuals continue to give and take bribes, thereby continuously recreating and enhancing the pattern on a daily basis.

Complexity analysis thus focuses on the inner dialectic processes between the micro and the macro. It explores how individual behaviours – the micro, contribute to the formations of systemic patterns – the macro, and then asks how such individual behaviours might react to the patterns created, thereby enhancing or altering these formations as a result”[9].

Overall, complexity science suggests that the rich phenomena that make up our economic, political, cultural, and technological ecosystem are all complex by nature. Whether analysing market prices, fashion trends, or protracted conflicts, their unique characteristics are continuously driven by numerous interdependent forces simultaneously changing and affecting one another. They are therefore forever in flux rather than converging towards some state of equilibrium. At the same time, such patterns are still the product of cause and effect relations – prices, fashion trends, or conflicts are not random occurrences. However, because their conditions emerge through endless interactions across dense social networks, their multiple cause-effect relations can never be fully determined in real time.

The theoretical foundations for explaining the emergence, behaviour, and evolution of patterns draw on a broad scientific basis with key interdisciplinary contributions, including: particle physics (Murry Gell-Mann); dissipative structures in chemistry (Ilya Prigogine) evolutionary biology (Humberto Maturana and Stuart Kauffman), systems thinking (Ludwig Von Bertalanffy) cognitive science (Francisco Varela), cybernetics and human knowing (Gregory Bateson); Economic evolution (Brian Arthur); and social structures formation (Gilles Deleuze, Félix Guattari, and Manuel De Landa). Together, they provide a rich assemblage of knowledge that exposes some of the “hidden rules” by which our complex reality unfolds.

The question is what does complexity science’s explanation of patterns mean from a strategic perspective? How can it help leaders design better strategies for countering rival patterns? As this project further elaborates, complexity science sheds a new and much needed light on the inner workings of systemic patterns - how they emerge, what triggers them to change, and the manner in which they evolve. By understanding the deeper mechanisms shaping our modern-day rivals, we can start developing new strategic approaches for countering them. Having said that, complexity science can only take us so far.

While providing new knowledge into the governing rules and nature of patterns, complexity thinking does not provide us with any clear frameworks for strategic design. As further explained under ‘building block II’, this is due to the fact that its scientific method rests on explaining processes of becoming, i.e. how reality unfolds, rather than uncovering specific cause-effect relations. As has been highlighted by a variety of publications exploring complex patterns in diverse fields such as economics, diplomacy, conflict resolution and technological innovation[10], an obvious gap still exists between ‘complexity thinking’ and ‘complexity doing’. To help bridge this gap we need to venture outside the academic realms.

1.3 Complexity doing – an ancient Chinese take on operational complexity

As suggested above, social, economic, and political patterns are complex by their very nature, emerging through the ongoing interactions among numerous forces and players, and sustained by self-reinforcing feedbacks effects. While seemingly stable they are in constant flow; while the product of cause-effect relations (such systemic constructs are not random), their attributes can never be determined in real time. Hence the key challenge faced by decision makers is - how to intentionally transform them? Yet our strategic approaches are based on our cognitive frameworks for making sense of reality, and the manner in which we have been trained to think about the nature of change around us. These deep-rooted structures are culturally embedded and tend to come into light only when presented with an alternative world view as reference by difference. In his epic book – Treatise on Efficacy[11], François Julien compares the development of Western and Chinese strategic frameworks, surprisingly revealing an ancient Chinese schema very much in tune with a complexity understanding of the world around us.

As further elaborated in ‘building block 3’, in very general terms, Julien describes the Western strategic tradition, from ancient Greece onwards, as “Fixing One’s Eye on the Model”[12]. In this schema, the strategist thinks up an ideal form – an end state towards which all action must be directed. This ideal model is determined on a “theoretical” basis – what do we want to achieve? What does victory look like? What political, economic, organisational or even physical forms should it take? This theoretical model is then transcribed into “practice”. The Western role of strategy therefore, is to develop the practical path for bringing our ideal model to life. This underlying framework has become a shared conceptual path traditionally taken by Western practitioners, from generals to economists. Yet in the case of rival patterns this approach has serious limitations. Given what complexity science teaches us about complex patterns, aiming towards a specific ideal model or end-state is almost futile. There are simply too many interdependent players and variables shaping the situation, preventing any player from controlling its ultimate unfolding.

Of course, one might say that the ideal model is just a conceptual exercise necessary to help strategists focus their aims. In fact, it has also become culturally accepted to think of reality as always falling short of the ideal model. The British public does not really expect Theresa May’s Brexit strategy to deliver the ideal model of UK-EU economic integration without immigration; a peace agreement in Syria is not really expected to deliver the ideal democratic regime change; and an international global warming treaty is not really expected to halt climate change. These inevitable gaps between the ‘ideal’ and the ‘realistic’ are due to the culturally embedded notion of ‘circumstances’ (Clausewitz’s notion of ‘friction’), unpredictable and always coming in the way. In this sense, the strategic hero is the one who defeats the odds and prevails over unfavourable circumstances to impose his vision on reality.

The question is - could we do better than oscillate between ideal visions of reality and the inevitable experience of disappointment? Could we actually achieve better results by utilising the messiness and dynamic nature of the ‘circumstances’ we face into our strategic design? Towards this end, Social Acupuncture suggests how some helpful ideas and metaphors can be emulated from ancient Chinese strategic thinking in general, and Acupuncture techniques in particular.

The Chinese epistemic tradition did not develop a similar world of ideal forms and definitions in the Greek sense, but rather focused on exploring the nature of reality and how it unfolds. In very general terms, reality was perceived as a continuous and dynamic process that stemmed purely from the interaction of the factors at play. These interactions thus became the focal point of the Chinese strategist. Rather than trying to achieve an ideal end state, the role of strategy was to assess the many forces shaping a certain situation and detect configurations in this environment that could be favourable to the task at hand, or the general direction aimed towards.

Within this mind-set, strategy is perceived in terms of seeking potential rather than a course of action, focusing on identifying existing emerging trajectories and how to best position oneself to take advantage of them. In this sense, it is those very ‘circumstances’ - that for the Western strategist come in the way of achieving her goal, that are the actual source of potential for the Chinese strategist. Instead of trying to impose a plan, a set of constructs upon the world, the strategic hero is carried along by the “propensity of things”[13], relying on her ability to detect the potential emergent within the situation. At best, such achievements blend so effortlessly into the flow so as to become undetected – thus depriving us of a heroic signature altogether. One can easily see how when operating in complex environments such an approach might open up new possibilities for effective action.

Moving beyond Julien’s fascinating philosophical insights, the challenge is to try and define what this could means in practice. The great thing about the Western schema is that it provides a clear rationale for designing action. Whether trying to achieve a functioning governing structure in Iraq; an entrepreneurial organizational culture at IBM; or a high-tech start-up cluster in Dubai; the design rationale is the same - backwards engineer the ideal model, in other words take it apart and try to actively create its building blocks one by one. Besides, ‘Building on the propensity of things’ might sound exciting on a leadership weekend retreat, but not very hands-on come Monday morning’s executive meetings. As discussed further in ‘building block 4’, developing a more practical approach could take inspiration from a more specific ancient Chinese application of its philosophical schema – the medicinal art of Acupuncture.

Medicinal arts by definition, are all about problem solving. Consequently, the manner in which Traditional Chinese Medicine (TDM) frames health problems, designs its treatments, and chooses its tools for action[14], provides a rich source of ideas when rethinking strategic design. While these ideas are explored in much more detail later on, there are three key notions to emphasise.

Firstly, in line with the ancient Chinese philosophical approach to nature and reality, TCM as a conceptual framework has also focused on health and illness in terms of multiple and interdependent processes. The human body is perceived as a dynamic system comprising of non-linear flows and interactions. Any unhealthy state is defined in terms of blockages or inconsistencies in these flows and interrelationships. In other words, health problems are thought of as patterns rather than as mechanical faults within a specific organ or biological mechanism. This similarity in defining problems as dynamic patterns is a key motivation for exploring Chinese acupuncture as a source of inspiration for developing more innovative ideas around strategic design in social environments.

Second is the process of transformation. According to TCM, the system is attributed with the power to heal itself – the body is basically expected to sort itself out by renewing healthier dynamic exchanges among its interdependent organ networks. The role of intervention, in this case the acupuncture needle, is to add information into the system, signalling to the body how to reconfigure disharmonious relations and flows. In this sense, the rationale for intervention is binary - either disrupt or enhance existing flows identified across the body’s network, so as to divert them into new and presumably healthier configurations.

Lastly, it’s important to note TCM’s design of action. The carefully chosen interventions are minimalist and many times situated far from the “core” of the problem. The logic behind it is that effective interventions can better be instigated upstream, where resistance is least, potential propensities are at their foremost, and where impact could resonate throughout the system via indirect effects. This implied assumption of non-linear transformations is another fascinating notion that is highly compatible with the nature of complex patterns and the operational challenges they pose for any leader wanting to take them on. Off course an ancient medicinal art, even if seemingly in tuned with a 21st Century complexity understanding of problems and impacts, can only go so far as to provide us with inspirational metaphors and ideas. Building on such influences, Social Acupuncture explores their potential contribution in the context of current societal challenges, suggesting how developing a new operational framework could help modern leaders counter the complex patterns standing in their way.

1.4 Social Acupuncture as complexity in action

As suggested at the beginning of this chapter, many of today’s strategic challenges can be better thought of as complex patterns, continuously recreated through the ongoing choices, actions and interactions among numerous players operating across dense global networks. Such systemic phenomena require a whole new strategic toolbox if we are to have any real impact in shaping the world we live in. Building on complexity theories’ deep knowledge of dynamic systems, and inspired by TCM’s practical approaches for catalysing change, Social Acupuncture suggests such a new approach. In fitting with the mind-set of complexity science, it does not aim to provide a “how to” guide. Yet in fitting with the mind-set of strategic design, it does aim to put forward some key rationales that can better guide decision makers in achieving systemic impact. While further developed in other ‘building blocks’, its key rationales can be divided into two main groups – pattern analysis and strategic design.

As suggested above, patterns emerge as macro manifestations of micro behaviours and interactions across social networks. Making sense of them require us to go through three analytical journeys. The first of course is a given pattern’s macro manifestation. This is the easiest level of analysis as it reflects the actual problem a certain pattern presents us with (social immobility; financial risk; decreasing market share; racism; obesity; etc.). Hence the obvious need to clearly identify what the problem actually is and the strategic challenges it presents to the relevant decision maker. The second journey assesses the micro behaviours and interactions that create and shape the pattern. For example, what individual actions create extremism and why? What consumer behaviour creates preference for processed food? Or why do bankers take certain risks?

The third analytical journey digs deeper not only into the individual behaviours that drive certain patterns to emerge, but also into their network context. In other words, how individual interactions create flows of money, information, ideas, behaviours, and social capital throughout a given system. Such flows provide the energy sources feeding and sustaining the pattern. They exist between the micro and the macro – a less referred to meso level, whose analysis can reveal so much about potential strategic leverages for action.

Once a pattern has been duly analysed, we can move on to designing counter-pattern strategies. Here one key rationale takes the lead – the logic of disruption. As explained earlier, the problem with complex patterns is that they cannot be controlled or engineered into any specific end states. Still, whatever the complex problem, it can be strategically analysed as a dynamic system whose coherency and stability is driven by self-sustaining forces that continuously reproduce it. Theoretically speaking therefore, disrupt the self-sustaining forces that support a pattern, and you will destabilise it enough to transform it. Such disruptions can be achieved by either enhancing or weakening existing and emerging dynamics. This means designing practical interventions that can nudge and alter flows within the network that supports the system, hence the importance of identifying flows throughout the pattern’s network. Naturally, implementation, also part of the strategic design process, requires continuous and iterative actions, learning and adapting as the impact and inevitable unintended consequences of the interventions take hold.

In this sense, rather than helping decision makers contain complexity, Social Acupuncture aims to show them how complexity can be harnessed and utilised for their own advantage. Whether analysing protracted conflicts, urban tensions, or unfavourable market conditions, the key to tackling such issues is understanding their underlying structures and the complex patterns that help sustain them. Such complex rivals cannot simply be “solved”, yet they can be disrupted and transformed. The role of the strategist thus becomes that of the acupuncturist - carefully analysing systemic flows, designing multiple and dynamic interventions across key intersections, ultimately building on the system’s own complexity and momentum for its very disruption.

[1] The Economist

[2] http://www.cnbc.com/id/43896634/page/7

[3] OECD 2009

[4] http://www.economist.com/news/science-and-technology/21596923-how-babbling-babies-can-boost-their-brains-beginning-was-word

[5] Lauren Rivera, Pedigree – How elite

[6] Stuart Kaufman https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bn1gqxvwN1k

[7] Oxford Dictionary

[8] See Melenie Mitchel, Complexity – a Guided Tour, (Oxford University press: 2011)

[9] See Brain Arthur, “Complexity Economics: A different framework for economic thought”, Santa Fe Institute working paper – 2013-04

[10] See Brian Arthur, The Nature of Technology and How It Evolves; Peter Coleman, The Five %; Eric Beinhocker, The Origins of Wealth; Ben Ramlingham, Aid on the Edge of Chaos; Hilton Root, Dynamics among Nations;

[11] François Julien, Treatise on Efficacy – Between Western and Chinese Thinking, (Hawaii University Press: 2004).

[12] Ibid, p1-13.

[13] Ibid p15-32.

[14] See Ted J. Kaprchuk, Chinese Medicine – the web that has no weaver, (Rider Press: 2000)