Other Takes on Systems and Complexity: Peter Coleman – Part 2

Heidi Burgess

Guy M. Burgess

November, 2016



This is part II of a two-part series describing key ideas from Peter Coleman's book The Five Percent. 

Referenced Resources

Peter Coleman.  The Five Percent. Public Affairs 2011

Discussion Questions: 

(1) What other ideas from Peter Coleman have you found to be particularly useful in your work?  Put another way, what are his core ideas that have influenced the way you work or think about conflict problems?

(2) What other people should we include in this "literature review" of the "founders" of the complexity-oriented approach to peacebuilding?  What key ideas of theirs have you found particularly useful or influential?  Can you give us citations to sources that talk about ideas?

Discuss both these questions in D12.

Full Transcript

Hi. this is Heidi Burgess. And I'm continuing on with a second video about Peter Coleman's views on systems, complexity, and intractable conflict. This is drawn from his book, The Five Percent. When we left off the last video, we were talking about attractors, which are repeating patterns of interaction that cause conflicts to seem to be stuck in very negative, destructive patterns. And they seem so stuck that they seem like they're static, that there's nothing to do to get out of the situation. I likened attractors to black holes. 

But Peter points out that attractors are formed by dynamics. And they can be changed with different dynamics. So the key is to figure out what forces maintain them and which of those forces can be changed. How do you do this? Well you have to recognize what the dynamics are, develop a theory of change to interrupt the process, and then enact that theory of change. 

Now we're going to have another video, a separate video, on theories of change. So I'm not going to go into a whole lot of detail on that now. But I want to tell you more about Peter Coleman's theory of how to transform intractable conflicts. He says that the way to move to action is to, using his language, "look at the manifest and latent attractor landscape." That means that you look at your conflict map. And you try to fight what he calls "energy centers" that are "actionable hubs."

This is a conflict map on drug wars that was drawn by one of our students, Jason Sawyer, at George Mason University. And he has, in this map, a perfect balance of arrows, much clearer than the complex map that I showed you a few minutes ago, because you can really see what's going from where to where. And you can see energy centers, which are places that have a lot of arrows going in, and actionable hubs, which are places that have a lot of arrows going out. 

If you act on an item that has a lot of arrows going out, you're going to create a lot of change in the system. Whereas, if you act on something that's relatively isolated, like that orange box over on the left, you're not going to have nearly the effect 

So what actions do you take? Peter names three. He points out that you need to use dynamic practices, not standard static practices. Static practices are the things that are on the left: negotiation, problem solving, mediation, all the traditional things that mediators tend to do. Instead, he thinks that you should 1) "complicate to simplify," 2) "build up and tear down," 3) "and change to stabilize." 

What do those things mean? Well, complicate to simplify means that you start by complicating, or he calls it complexifying. You try to reduce the quest for oversimplification and coherence. You change the right/wrong, good/bad, us-versus-them image, and try to understand all the complexities that are inherent in an actual situation. 

But as I think I said before, this diagram is way too complex. So what you have to do is then you have to simplify it to come up with something where you can actually see the positive and negative feedback loops, the actionable hubs and the energy centers, and the patterns that might be lost in the complexity. You need to find what he refers to as the "fine line of simplexity."

Secondly, you need to build up and tear down. You need to tear down the conflict traps. You need to reduce the escalation, the polarization, the us-versus-them framing. Anything, any of the dynamics, which are shown in maps as arrows, that are strengthening and maintaining the negative attractors, those are the things that you need to tear down. I tell students to draw their maps and find the arrows that are causing things to get worse. And then try to throw "monkey wrenches in the works" so that those negative dynamics don't work anymore. 

You also need to build up the sense of hope, the sense of possibility. Intractable conflicts are incredibly depressing. People can get stuck and think that there's no way out. And if there is a way out, the only way out is to destroy the other. They're never going to do what you want them to do or need them to do, if you say the only solution is to completely wipe them out. That's a recipe for disaster. That's what keeps intractable conflicts going. 

Instead, you need to come up with new ideas and new frames. And you need to get out of the us-versus-them mindset, and try to figure out new ways of interacting that will indeed work with the other enough to get them to work with you and enough to create a new and more constructive system. 

Thirdly, you need to change to stabilize. You need to leverage opportunities for change. Look at the maps, and find things that are approachable. Find things that are doable. Respond to the dynamics of the system, not just the immediate events. And perhaps most importantly, you need to value incremental change. You must understand that you can't completely solve intractable conflicts. You can't bring "peace in our time." 

You need, instead, to find a little corner of the map and make a small change that can then reverberate through the system and turn into a larger change and a larger change. And as we'll point out later, if there are many people making different small changes, all in a positive direction, these can build on each other. And it can have a significant effect. But you can't try to take on the whole complex system at once. 

You also need to be mindful of unexpected consequences. And look at the long as well as the short term dynamics and outcomes. And you need to be ready to adapt as the system changes. Now I could spend a lot longer talking about all of these things. But if they strike you as interesting and useful, I suggest you get Peter Coleman's book, The Five Percent, and read all the details. And we will be coming back to a number of these ideas in a number of the videos that we do in the future as well. Thanks.