JRD Tata joined the Tata Group as an unpaid apprentice when he was 21. He was a great learner. He was always curious, wanting to learn how things worked and how they were made. He had a fancy clock on his desk, a gift from a European industrialist. One day, the clock stopped working.

He liked tinkering with clocks. He wiggled with the knobs at the back but could not get the clock to work. Since he did not have any important engagements that morning, he asked his secretary to shut the door and leave him alone for two hours. He cleared his desk, took out the toolkit that he kept in his drawer and got to work. After two hours, he sheepishly opened the door and gave his secretary a brown paper bag with all the parts of the clock. He had failed to fix the clock, he said.

In fact, having taken it apart, he could not even put it together again. He had never seen a clock like this fancy one. He asked his secretary to carefully give the brown bag to the old clock repairer down the street and ask him if he could fix it. He thanked her when she said that, to save his face, she would tell the watch-repairer that Mr Tata had opened the clock but did not have time to put it together again because he had some important meetings.

JRD Tata was familiar with the construction of clocks. He often repaired the ones he had at home. The one on his desk was somewhat different to the others. The old watch-repairer had even deeper insights into the construction of clocks than Mr Tata because he had repaired a greater variety in his life. He understood the essentials of clocks better than Mr Tata did. Similarly, an expert car mechanic can diagnose the problem with a car, regardless of the brand of car, when a customer walks in with a complaint. Based on the symptoms, the customer’s report, a walk around, and a turn of the key, a mechanic can make a good hypothesis of the cause.

A system gets its unique capability from the systematic combination of the diversity of parts within it. A bag full of the clock’s parts in Mr Tata’s hands could not function as a clock. The parts must be put together again in a particular way so that they can interact with each other as intended and enable the complex system to function again as a clock should.

Complex adaptive systems

Clocks are complex systems. So are automobiles. All complex systems have distinctive patterns that enable them to perform the functions we expect them to. Trees and human bodies are also complex systems. However, trees, human bodies, and other living systems have a capability that clocks, automobiles, and other machines do not have. They can repair themselves and can carry on functioning as trees or as humans even if they lose a limb. They do not require external assistance to get themselves going again.

This fundamental difference between complex systems designed by an external designer (as clocks, automobiles, aeroplanes, and computers are), and living systems with an innate capability to adapt themselves to their circumstances, requires different approaches for repairing a system when it is damaged. A gardener does not pull apart the components of a rose bush and reconstruct it when it is not flowering as it should. He helps the rose bush heal itself, by pruning it a bit if necessary, and by giving some fertiliser to its roots or spraying its leaves. He helps the rose to heal itself.

A therapist does not take apart her unhappy patient’s brain to fix it and return it to the patient when it is set right. They help patients recover their own will to heal themselves. Though both gardeners and therapists help living systems recover their own abilities to heal themselves, there is a significant difference in the work of gardeners and therapists because they work with different types of living systems.

A matter of self-awareness

There is no self-aware agent within the rose plant whom the gardener can speak to and who can tell the gardener how it is feeling. Whereas, a therapist, or any medical specialist, helping a human patient can talk to someone who has the same type of self-awareness that the doctor has.

Human beings have an intent and the will to self-consciously make their lives better. This distinguishes them from other forms of life. A tree within a grove does not self-consciously compare its height with other trees around it and decide it must be the tallest tree of all. A pine does not envy an oak and decide to become like one. Self-conscious intent is a potent force in complex systems composed by human beings. Their aspirations, their egos, and their desires to control others are complications that facilitators of change in socio-economic systems must work with, which gardeners do not have to contend with amongst their plants.

Complex technological systems and complex biological systems do not have the complications of human intentionality along with the human will and ego as forces within the system. Biological systems adapt, responding instinctively to changes in their environment. Whereas, human beings want to change their environments to suit their needs. The power of a human being situated within complex adaptive systems has grown along with the development of modern science since the 17th century with the European Enlightenment.

Francis Bacon (1561–1626) said, “Science gives Man the power to control unruly nature.” Sadly, humility has given way to hubris. Humans are destroying a complex system they do not fully understand and destroying themselves within it.

Title: Shaping the Future : A Guide for Systems Leaders

Author: Arun Maira

Publisher: Notion Press

Price: ₹599

Through The Billion Press