social network. These systems are susceptible to sudden changes of structure
of unpredictable onset and extent. The
best we can say is the conditions for avalanche are present but we cannot say
with any certainty the avalanche will actually happen or, if it does, what its extent will be. In other words, we are able
to explain an avalanche after it happens
but we are profoundly unable to predict
anything about it before it happens.
Earthquake preparedness is an example in nature that does not depend
on humans. Seismic experts can tell us
where the fault lines are and compute
the probabilities of earthquake on different faults. They cannot, however,
predict when an earthquake will happen or how large it will be. In effect they
are trying to predict when an earthy
avalanche—collapse of structure in a
section of earth’s crust—will happen.
Similarly, snow experts know when conditions are “ripe” for an avalanche and
can call for evacuating the area. But they
cannot know exactly where a snow avalanche may start, or when, or how much
snow will sweep down. These experts
call on people to be prepared but few
actually heed the advice and lay in necessary supplies or make necessary contingency plans.
Navigating in Uncertainty
Complexity researchers have turned
to simulations of complex systems to
see when avalanches happen and how
large they are. These simulations often
reveal regularities in the state spaces of
those systems that can be usefully exploited to make predictions.
What are more pragmatic things
we can do to cope with uncertainty?
We can learn some lessons from those
who must deal with disasters such as
fires, earthquakes, floods, or terror attacks. Their data shows the times between events and sizes of events follow
power laws and cannot be predicted.
Their coping strategy boils down to
preparedness and resiliency. Preparedness means to have recovery resources
standing by in case of need. Resiliency
means to rapidly bounce back and restore order and function.
They have worked out strategies to
Uncertainty in Professional Work
identify the situations most “ripe” for
an avalanche. For instance, the power
law for terror attacks shows that at-
tacks tend to cluster in time at a given
location Thus, a next attack is more
likely at the same location as the cur-
rent attack The preparedness strate-
gies include rapid mobilization of law
enforcement just after an attack to
counter the tendency for a new attack,
and to identify optimal geographic
locations for positioning recovery re-
sources and supplies. Resilience strat-
egies include rapidly mobilizing tech-
nicians and artisans to restore broken
communications and facilities.
What can we do when we find ourselves
in chaotic situations and must still
navigate through the uncertainty to
achieve our goals?
One of the most difficult environments to navigate is the social space in
which we perform our work. This space
is dominated by choices that other people make beyond our control. When we
propose innovations, we are likely to encounter resistance from some sectors
of our community that do not want the
innovation; they can be quite inventive
in finding ways to block our proposals. 2 When we start new projects or even
companies, we do not know whether our
plans are going to take off or just wither
away. Even in normal everyday working
environments, conflicts and contingencies suddenly arise and we must resolve
them to keep moving forward.
The analogy of a surfer is useful in ap-
proaching these situations. A surfer aims
to ride the waves to the shore without los-
ing balance and being swept under. The
waves can be turbulent and unpredict-
able. The surfer must maintain balance,
ride the crests moving toward the shore,
and dodge side waves and cross currents.
The surfer may need to jump to a new
wave when the time is right, or quickly
tack to avoid an unfavorable current or
wind. Thus, the surfer generates a path
through the turbulent waves.
In the social space, waves manifest
as groups of people disposed to move
in certain directions and not in others—sometimes the waves appear as
fads or “memes” and they have a momentum that is difficult to divert. As a
professional, we become aware of these
waves and try to harness them to carry
us toward our goal. As each surprise
pops up, we instinctively look for openings into which we can move—and,
more importantly, we create openings
by starting conversations that assuage
the concerns of those whose resistance
threatens to block us. These little deals
cut a path through the potential resistance and get us to our goal.
The lesson here is that we listen for
the waves, ride their momentum toward our goal, and make adjustments
by creating openings in our conversations with other people. At its best, the
complexity theory helps us understand
when a process is susceptible to unpredictable avalanches. We move beyond
the limitations of the theory by generating openings in our conversations
with other people.
1. Bak, P. How Nature Works: The Science of Self-Organized Criticality. Springer-Verlag, 1996.
2. Denning, P. Winning at innovation. IEEE Computer
(Oct. 2018), 32–39.
3. Eldredge, N. and Gould, S.J. Punctuated equilibria: An
alternative to phyletic gradualism. In T.J.M. Schopf,
Ed., Models in Paleobiology. Freeman Cooper, San
Francisco, CA, 82–115.
4. Lewis, T. G. Bak’s Sand Pile: Strategies for a
Catastrophic World. Agile Press (2011), 382.
5. Rogers, E. Diffusion of Innovations (5th edition). Free
6. Taleb, N.N. The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly
Improbable. Random House, 2007, 2010.
Peter J. Denning ( email@example.com) is Distinguished
Professor of Computer Science and Director of the
Cebrowski Institute for information innovation at the
Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, CA, USA, is Editor
of ACM Ubiquity, and is a past president of ACM. The
author’s views expressed here are not necessarily those of
his employer or the USA federal government.
Ted G. Lewis ( firstname.lastname@example.org) is an author
and consultant with more than 30 books on computing
and hi-tech business, a retired professor of computer
science, most recently at the Naval Postgraduate School,
Monterey, CA, USA, a Fortune 500 executive, and the co-founder of the Center for Homeland Defense and Security
at the Naval Postgraduate School, Monterey, CA, USA.
Copyright held by authors.
One of the most
to navigate is
the social space in
which we perform
our work. This space
by choices that
other people make
beyond our control.