Ombudsman, Sandia National Lab
Topics: obstacles, complex adaptive systems
Interviewed by Julian Portilla — 2003
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Q: How does a physicist become involved in conflict resolution?
A: The way this question gets asked among my colleagues is, "What is a perfectly good scientist like you doing in this squishy, touchy field of conflict resolution or dispute resolution?" There is a personal temperament part to this story, and there's a life experience part to this story. One piece is that I've always had an interest in connections, collaborations, teaching, mentoring, and those kinds of things.
In 1965 and 1966, when I was a senior in high school, I mentioned to my father that I wanted to be a teacher. He grew up in rural South Dakota, went through the depression, fought in World War II, and was experiencing income and freedom beyond his wildest dreams. He had high hopes and aspirations for his baby boomer son, and they did not include going to work in a low paying teaching position. His response to my ambition about becoming a teacher was, "If you want a nickel out of me for your college education you will be a scientist or an engineer." So I needed a lot of nickels from him to do that. I went on to become what is known as a material scientist, which is a part of physics. I had a very nice twenty year career. I had a set of scientific research goals for myself that only lasted me about 20 years. They were not lifetime, or forty year, goals.
One thing that happened was that by the late 1980's, I was thinking that I needed to come up with a new set of life goals. These have served me well. I have a small international reputation, a sizeable national reputation, I've done research I feel very good about, and have had an impact on a couple of technical fields; but I had to define some new ones, they could have been further down the research path, but it didn't have to be. At the same time through personal tragedy, a suicide of a younger sister in 1979, I developed some really powerful self-destructive kinds of reactions to that. By the mid-80's I had pretty much ruined everything else in my life. A few people had stood by me even though I was not a nice person at all.
When I made some choices to re-orient my life, get pointed in a positive, constructive direction that really was the thing that allowed me to put my life back together again. At the beginning of the 1990's, I had a voice in my head that said, "You say you're grateful for those people who stood by me, but now you need to turn that into some sort of action to be constantly telling people that you are grateful to them while you continue to do the other things that are part of your life." And I was feeling a little bit guilty and ashamed about not doing those things. I started developing some alternate credentials around crisis intervention psychology, doing volunteer work, and suicide prevention.
In 1992, the president of Sandia National Laboratory decided he wanted to establish a ombudsman program, and in the end asked if I would please start that program.
For 11 years now I have been fulfilling that role, and it has proved very fulfilling for me in the sense that I can take advantage of the scientific background, the understanding of a scientific culture, the understanding of the scientific research ego, and use that to the benefit of finding solutions to relationship problems/disputes. It has provided me a wonderful place to see those connected. The job I left to take this one was a research group leader/manager, and as you might guess in bureaucracies they tend to be inefficient and ineffective. I can honestly tell you that I've had a larger impact on the technical scientific output of the laboratory as an ombudsman than I did as a group manager.
The time I spent approving purchases, going to meeting, learning about the new performance management system for next year, none of that really contributed much to the scientific output of the laboratory. When I would get two or three scientists together who needed to collaborate, yet are hopelessly locked in conflict and essentially science is not being done because they're in conflict, for me to work with them as a mediator they get pass those differences, they find a way to collaborate, and then do really good things-that is my contribution to the scientific output. There is sort of a backwardsness to it. You would think that I would have left behind making a contribution to the scientific output. My indirect contribution to conflict resolution turns out to be significant. I feel very good about that.
More recently what has happened is that as I've become more interested in the newer areas in science that are more biology based that work around
complex adaptive systems.
It is clear to me that there is a very important embedded set of understandings that are coming out of the complex adaptive system theory that we in the conflict resolution field need to be very aware of. We actually needed to be leading the way and integrating these into how we see conflict.
Q: Are you talking about cooperative behavior and the evolution of cooperation?
A: There have certainly been things published around that.
It is the notion that systems as a whole produce outcomes, results, and behaviors that don't originate in any one person. I mean that is a powerful way of looking at collaboration. It turns out those kinds of systems, the ones that thrive and adapt successfully, use both cooperative and collaborative strategies, as well as some competitive strategies. We learn how to intimately mix those two types of strategies to some shared beneficial outcome for the whole system.
There is a growing amount of work being done worldwide in the area of complexity and complex adaptive systems. I am actually hoping that I can be a niche player. That is someone who has spent more than a decade doing conflict resolution, but has the background to understand some of the more detailed scientific aspects of these complex adaptive systems. This might be a bridge to help diffuse the new learnings and understandings out of complexity science into the world of conflict resolution. I really do see that there is a great deal in value and insight to be gained by looking at those perspectives.
Q: Can you paint me a single picture, or provide me with an analogy so that I can understand how a biological system, where there is cooperation and competition to come up with an output, can be analogous to a social situation involving human beings?
A: The comparison I'll make is to an ant colony. The good thing is that humans aren't ants. We have much cognitive conscious powers to make choices. The couple of points I'll make by looking at an ant colony as a complex adaptive system is the notion that any individual ant is really not very smart at all. They respond very simply and very directly to chemical signals. They are tightly pre-programmed. They don't make a lot of free-will kinds of decisions. Yet, the colony is an incredibly sophisticated thing in which there are complex strategies in which there is cooperation among the ants. There is even cooperation among adjoining colonies some of the time. Other times, it is pretty brutal survival of the fittest sort of strategy, and this was deployed in certain parts as well as strategies to grow and take over other ant colonies. So if you watch an ant colony, many things are collaborative. Many of us who have watched ant colonies work can see a lot of collaboration there, and there is some fairly brutal competition that is mixed with that.
Eventually, you end up with this larger system, which is much smarter than any individual ant. There is no smart ant that knows tactics, strategy to combat with other ant colonies. There is no smart ant that knows how to build consensus and collaboration among the ants, yet the whole system is able to do that. The gap between that sort of behavior and humans is huge. There is an example of where in that kind of a system you see competition and collaboration.
The other place you'll see it is that if you were to interview jazz musicians. A jazz ensemble is a nice example of a complex adaptive system in the sense that the players have certain basic rules, chromatic progressions that they all agree to before hand. In the midst of those simple rules they co-create something that's not predictable, that has a whole system, an ensemble sort of sound, history, and flavor to it that no one person has thought of and then instructed the others in. If you talk to a jazz musician, they'll tell you that in the midst of playing jazz that some of the time they are collaborating with their cohorts in the ensemble and some of the time they are competing. They move fluidly from cooperative and collaborative strategies in the moment to some competitive strategies. The best of that, in terms of competition, is that they are not destructive, damaging competitions. There isn't a jazz musician that wouldn't tell you that, "oh no, I get caught in competition with one of my ensemble partners." This doesn't do damage to the ensemble, but they are certainly competitive.
Q: Will understanding these types of relationships, and understanding the systems help us to deal with and manage conflict?
A: I think one of the most powerful shifts when looking at human systems as truly complex and adaptive systems is that it calls for us to let go of our traditional, our thoroughly embedded, educational notions that come around the words like analysis. All of us educated in the 400 years since the Enlightenment in the early 1600's have been trained, and believe in the power of what is known as reductionist-analytical thinking. That is, if I've got a big complicated thing, the way I better understand it is that I break it down into its pieces. I study the pieces. Then I hook the pieces back up, and that way I understand the whole.
Q: You take the engine apart of the car, put it back together and now you know how it works.
A: That is the analytical-reductionist approach. It is incredibly powerful. Virtually everything around us in the West is a result of that. The dilemma is that if you listen to the notion of what a complex adaptive system is you find out that it is a system in which individual parts are making their own local decisions, producing outcomes that are characteristic of the whole. You cannot take that apart. If you look at an ant colony, you can't take that apart. There are no headquarters' ants and supply ants. You can't take apart ant resources. You can't take it apart, study the parts and put it back together. The whole responds in a particular way that is characteristic of the whole. That is all you can do.
So our tendency to take any complicated conflict and want to break it apart and help the people involved solve it by solving it piece by piece has some utility. It has clearly worked, but it is really an approximation to the whole. In what's called intractable conflict, people end up frustrated because in the end what is clear to them in those kinds of conflicts is that everything is intimately connected to everything else. Everyone's effort to break it apart in pieces and work on the pieces separately and then to put it back together is the analytical approach. What we find is we started a discussion on a piece part and discovered that we could not discuss this separate from this other thing. Everything is hooked to everything when we have to work on it. Realizing that at best breaking something down into parts and working on parts is an approximation, sometimes a useful approximation, but it is always an approximation.
Sometimes the system is so tightly coupled that it will not yield to break it apart into pieces. We've got to develop a whole new set of tools on how to impact whole systems using a basic philosophical approach that is more holistic and integrative than the traditional one which is reductionist and analytical. I think that at looking at conflict through the lens of them being complex-adaptive systems as opposed to complicated systems requires us to make a major shift away from most all the tools we've developed.
Most all the tools we've developed are ones to help us in that analysis, conflict analysis, setting priorities, building a smaller simpler table. I mean you can look through the literature and tell that we really do want our old analytical tools to work, and they have. We shouldn't fail to use them when they work, but I think that the notions of complexity science give us a whole new way to look at conflict in these kinds of systems that will open up the use of new interventions, and new tools that we wouldn't come to without taking a really radically different look at these kinds of conflicts.
Q: Sounds a little like a social scientific revolution.
A: Oh it is. Let me give you a little larger historical context. The shift we are in is true of the physical sciences as well. The shift in the first half of the twenty-first century is equal in magnitude to the shift in the Enlightment, or the 17th century between mid-evil thinking and modern thinking. Relativity starting in 1950, quantum mechanics, those were the pre-cursors. The 20th century had a couple of things happening. We had a number of physics discoveries, including relativity and quantum mechanics that showed us that the limits of the clockwork universe had been met, and the universe wasn't as purely clockwork as we might have hoped. We on the physical science side are getting humbled by the fact that not only is everything not known, but we can now clearly prove that not everything is even knowable. This really violates some of the basic rules of analytical thinking.
At the same time we sent men to the moon in the 20th century, which is a victory and triumph for all of those objectivists and analytical techniques. It's been interesting for me, coming out of the physical sciences, that some of our discoveries of the 21st century beat us into a degree of humility that we had to recognize not as much was knowable and studiable as we hoped. It is interesting to watch our social science colleagues, maybe a little late in getting to the process of realizing that, gosh maybe the traditional tools we used for social science research may be off the mark too, but we all are on our way there. There is a revolution in play. It's of equal magnitude to the move from the mid-evil world to what we call the modern world for much of the second half of the 20th century. In speculative philosophy this was called post-modernism. It turns out that the work in the neurosciences in biology together with the working complexity sciences are telling us that many of the hypotheses in post-modern philosophies turn out to be true; and we're having to adjust to that. We'll look back in 2050 and say gosh some of the beliefs we had in the 20th century were sure quaint weren't they?
Q: It sounds like quite a formidable task to come up with social science, conflict management tools that can deal with a whole conflict system at the same time without breaking it apart. Is that feasible?
A: Sure it is. The fact that you and I are so deeply embedded in believing that the only way to get our arms around a complicated thing is to break it apart, to imagine giving up the hope that we won't be able to even break a problem apart is pretty daunting. We don't have another way to look at the problem. Folks are working hard right now, and will over the next twenty or thirty years to develop the ways of intersecting these sorts of systems.
Thirty years from now people will say, "Well of course we know how to do that."
They will site the research that is done to do it. For those of us at the front edge it's a space we haven't looked in to. All of our tools have been built around a very basic organizing principle. It is impossible for us to imagine. We have to discover them. When somebody has spent his life in science it is daunting on one level but it's just exciting on the other. It's a much more exciting time than it was twenty or thirty years ago.
Q: From the social science or physical science?
A: Both. A lot has yet to be discovered. There are no logical, easy to imagine solutions.
Q: Knowing what we know about the resistance to scientific revolutions and the deep distrust of being paradigm shifts, do you think that the social sciences, specifically the conflict resolution community, will also meet a paradigm shift with the same skepticism as the scientific community?
A: Sure it will. The story I'll make by comparison is in the late mid-evil time when Copernicus suggested that the sun was at the center of the solar system he published that work close to his death to make sure nothing would happen to him. Basically the established institution of the time just judged that point of view crazy and ignored it. Eighty years later when Galileo repeated it, the institutions were feeling under such intense threat with these new ideas that they felt they had to imprison him and prevent the publication of his work. That is because established institutions that had such huge investments in the previous ways of looking at things had developed a lot of resistance in making this shift. What is unknowable is at the depth to which that resistance will be held.
I think that there is good reason to believe that the resistance won't last any longer than one career cycle for academics. This is because the fact is that if new young graduate students come out, giving senior faculty the answers on the dissertations that they know the faculty want; mean while they are thinking that I really believe the answer is something very different. By this time their thesis advisors have retired and moved on the students will then be moving into tenured positioned and bringing in a new way of looking at things. I would see that senior people have a lot invested in traditional ways of looking at things. I don't expect many of them to call the dean and say you know I think I need to resign my chair because I think my way of thinking is outdated and outmoded and you really need to put some fresh PhD graduate student in my chair to bring those new ideas. So I think there will be a lot of resistance.
I don't want to lose track of the fact that none of this suggests that there is not much that has had application, and been successfully applied in conflict resolution that won't continue to be successfully applied. Instead of seeing them as interventions that we use because we know the nature of the conflict, they will instead be tools that we've seen work in the past and they are worth a try. Sometimes they work and sometimes they don't. We'll have a much better understanding of why they don't work than they ever did before. I wouldn't want to imply that somehow everything we've learned as mediators and dispute resolvers will somehow be thrown out. It won't. We will use many of the same tools, but the way we see them and what we expect from them, that will shift significantly.
Q: There is a lot of work in Organizational Development and business that talks about systems. Is that parallel with this kind of thinking?
A: Systems theory has been around for a while. Cybernetics was a topic of discussion. Single loop learning and double loop learning are all ways of trying to grapple with the fact that experience tell us that the whole is sometimes not simply the sum of the parts. It is more complicated than just the sum of the parts. We've seen that happen. The first generation of system theory as it evolved from maybe the late fifty's into the late eighty's, I would call it a systems theory about complicated systems. There is this notion that some systems are too complicated to be taken apart, they could but they are just too complicated.
It wasn't until chaos theory in the 70's and early 80's evolved into a constellation of ideas, now called complexity science, put a little different look at it. I think the systems theory that organizational development folks have been moving along for twenty or thirty years is that dawning of the acknowledgment that you just can't break it apart into it's pieces. The way of looking at the whole in this form of complex adaptive systems is a more focused and specific way of looking at systems. I think the work on 30 years on systems theory has been many people's attempt to grapple with the notion that the whole is sometimes more than the sum of its parts. How do we address that? The two work together. If you go to OD conferences right now, you'll find that the number of sessions on systems notions is increasing and many of those happen to approach systems from the point of view of complex adaptive systems.
Q: I sort of understand the ideas. I'm looking for a picture, an example that I can sink my teeth into so I can say, okay I'm getting it. Do you have something like that for me?
A: It may not be as focused as you'd like. I'll give you two. One that is human and one that is not. The one that is not human is the visual impact that a school of fish or a flock of birds has. You sit and you watch a flock of birds fly. They produce these incredibly ornate, never repeating motions in the air. To our eyes they look incredibly coordinated. I mean think of the work you would have to do to humans to behave with such coordinated action. The fact is there is no coordinating bird. There is no drum major bird that directs them. Instead what you have are individual birds with very simple programming. This programming says don't hit your neighbor, don't hit an obstacle, and fly in a certain range. Not too close and not too far from the birds around you. Out of those simple rules used by hundreds of birds you get incredibly complicated and never repeatable behavior. That is so hard for us to comprehend based on our education. Those simple rules, used by thousands of individuals, produce a system that does incredibly complex, complicated and unpredictable behavior. That is a great example of a complex adaptive system.
On the other side, lets look at the cell phone phenomenon. The people who introduce the first cell phone, never in their wildest dreams predicted that there would be cameras and the web. The web didn't even exist when they started with cell phones, and that is an example of the fact that you can have a small change in the cell phone. The people who envisioned it saw it as a limited substitute for hard-wired, land-line phone. What has happened is as tens of thousands, millions of people have taken that and adjusted their own lives around it. Cell phone technology has taken on a life that no one could have possibly predicted.
The other characteristic of these kinds of systems is that you get responses that can be explosively huge that no one could have possibly predicted. Those are two examples of how these systems work. The exciting thing for us, as dispute resolvers, is that we are a third party that enters a complicated system that might have millions of disputants. How in the world can a few people impact an outcome of millions? The truth is, in these kinds of systems small inputs can create or stimulate huge changes. That is something we should celebrate and leave open. Now, not all small changes or small inputs create large outputs, but some can. The exciting thing is that this is the nature of these systems that a few people can make a huge difference beyond their small numbers.
Q: The butterfly effect?
A: Give up the hope of predicting it. If you want to use the butterfly effect you have to know that the notion is we don't know which flap of the wings of which butterfly might create the hurricane. What we should do is release hundreds, thousands, tens of thousands of butterflies and see what happens. As dispute resolvers, we shouldn't worry about what the one intervention is that will make a difference. We should try hundreds of smallish sorts of things that are thought out and we hope have a chance of having a positive impact. We are not looking for the one small intervention that will work, we want to have a lot of interventions that we hope might work and then we will see what happens.