Some things are exquisitely complicated. Making changes, fixing problems, or making improvements to such things is really difficult.
Unintended consequences result when you do something simple in a complex system.
Came across a superb illustration of the challenge of dealing with complexity. In his post The Health Care Disaster and the Miseries of Blue, Walter Russell Mead compares the US healthcare system to a jungle ecosystem.
… The health care system has become incredibly complicated. It is huge — roughly one sixth of the national economy. It is like a tropical rain forest: an ecosystem that is so complicated that nobody understands the complicated interrelationships of its web of life. Tweak something here, and something completely unexplained happens over here. You can’t regulate something this complicated effectively by a government bureaucracy any more than you can regulate a rain forest by decree: telling the thousands of species of butterflies when to mate, the army ants where to march, the sloths which trees to prune, the jaguars what to kill and when, repressing the anacondas just a touch while encouraging the otters.
Thinking you can direct jaguars to increase anacondas in their diet to reach the level of otters that you think appropriate will cause something unexpected, totally apart from whether you can actually make jaguars change their behavior, decrease the number of anacondas or increase the number of otters. By the way, attempting to do so implies that you know what the right number of jaguars, anacondas, and otters really is. That entire stream of thought and action is arrogant and presumptuous.
… People who’ve devoted their lives to the study of our health care system (really, system of systems or just systemic chaos) don’t understand everything about it or how it all works. Tweak a Medicare reimbursement formula, and suddenly nurses are getting a windfall in Chicago while GP practices are shutting down across Kansas. As the numbers grow, and the complexity of the system increases, the opportunities and incentives for fraud balloon — again, often in ways that those trying to ‘fix’ the system don’t understand or predict.
This is an illustration of the focus I have with unintended consequences on this blog.
Other complex issues that are really hard to understand and change:
- How to reduce poverty levels internationally
- How to do international aid well without causing unintended problems (this is the unintended consequence issue I’ve been talking about)
- How to reduce poverty levels in the U.S.
- How to grow the economy, in the U. S. and internationally
- How to end wars and maintain peace
- How to value donated medicines
- How to understand and adapt to the radical change surrounding us
- How to create fundamental change in an organization (especially at the level of corporate culture)
I don’t have any brilliant ideas. Only the caution that we need to be humble when dealing with complex systems.
I’m working on several related posts.