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Decision making in complex environments

Every now and again I come across something that captivates me and leaves me wanting to know more...

I was first introduced to Complexity Theory and the work of Professor Dave Snowden by Al Smith at when we were delivering a seminar together in South Africa. At the time I remember that Al had a group of coaches wrestling with the conept and I was definitley one of them.

Having said that it was something that interested me and although I didn't totally get it I knew that it was something I needed to know more about. I made a mental note to learn more.

I was researching creativity and decison making on You Tube recently and discovered this seminar delivered by Professor Snowden thinking that I would see what it was about and take away a couple of nuggets. 70 odd minutes later and I was still rewinding the video so that I could take down the latest nugget that he had just uttered.

I highly recommend watching this talk if you have the time but if you haven't got and hour and a half to spare I have summarised the talk by sharing my field notes interspersed with some of the big takeaways underneath this video.


"Humans are basically pattern based intelligences. Not information processing machines".

"We basically evolved to make decisions very quickly based on partial data. Using half remembered memories of our own. And the vicarious memories of other people which we hear through stories or what are called 'micro narratives'".

We make sense of the world by being exposed to situations repeatedly and recognising the patterns. Without exposure to these scenarios enough times we do not have the opportunity become skilled at the pattern recognition.

Does this mean that players who can 'read the game' are actually players who have a lot of exposure to similar scenarios and can recognise patterns quickly?

If this is the case then perhaps we need to have talent systems which are all about scenario exposure so that players can begin to recognise patterns and develop solutions to what they recognise.

Adaptation is a linear evolution in biology. It can take a long time but it is shorter than we think

Epigenetics is showing this

"If you give bright mice, dumb mice to bring up, the children of the dumb mice are bright!"

Culture changes chemicals which activate or deactivate DNA. Within 1 or 2 generations, culture can change biology!

Significant changes can be 'exaptive' instead of 'adaptive'.

'Exaptive change' is when a particular set of characteristics or behaviours are repurposed due to a change in the ecological environment.

"The cerebellum in apes evolved fine motor skills to enable the ape to pick seeds from within seed pods. This fine motor skill ability then exapted to become speech and grammar".

We all want to develop players or athletes that can 'adapt' to situations or circumstances but how can we encourage more 'exaptations' where players explore totally novel ways of overcoming a challenge. Do our current development environements encourage this or are we focussed on 'the basics' or 'the fundamentals' which means that we discourage genuine creativity.

Most innovation happens at the elite level and then trickles down to the lower levels once it becomes 'acceptable' (think of Sonny-Bill Williams , one hand off load in Rugby or Kevin Pietersen's 'flamingo shot' in cricket.

How many of those techniques would have come from one of our talent environments?

"If you use high abstract, symbolic scenarios things will associate in completely novel ways. If you use concrete problem solving scenarios you will get good solutions with known capability against existing problems but you won't get completely novel ones!"

Are we sacrificing the emergence of completely novel solutions that might give us the point of difference in favour of functional solutions that achieve a certain level of competence but won't be world class?

Is this why so many world class performers emerge from outside of NGB pathways rather than through them because they are free to explore solutions that are thrown up by the challenges of their environment?

"The idea that human systems are like manufacturing is very dangerous."

"We are shifting from an engineering model of human systems to an ecological model".

Have some of our talent systems become too mechanical? Are we actually working against ourselves by putting kids into system that is obsessed with technical outcomes and overcoaches them when we would be better to create environments that force players to develop novel solutions and watch them emerge?

We need scenerios which foster 'co-adaptation' and 'co-evolution'. This process develops resilience...the organism or system can experience shock and recover.

"Resilience is surviving change without loss of identity. Robustness is just surviving without change".

Systems become hyper specialised and then when the system receives any shock it collapses catastrophically.

That is the process that human systems go through unless you deliberately disrupt the system.

This makes me think of Alex Ferguson who deliberately disrupted the Man Utd team when things became too comfortable. I think he instinctively knew that he had to use controlled disruption to ensure that the system adapted which then made it resilient and developed sustained success?

Some of this might have been forced upon him but I can't imagine that level of success for that long without some design in the background.


Nobody has innovated by following industrial best practice.

'Imitating a dominant predator makes you a jackal' all you do is end up serving the dominant predator

How many sports organisations look to the organisation that is top of the tree and seek to emulate them? As long as this continues the top organisation will always prevail. Seek to find new solutions by breaking convention and being brave enough to explore approaches that are not immediately obvious.

Types of system

Ordered system - fixed constraints - everything is very predictable, lots of 'rules'. It can be excessive.

Complex system - Adaptive - partial constraints. Use a lot of 'heuristics' - 'rules of thumb not guaranteed to be optimal or perfect but sufficient for the immediate goals'.

Heuristics can be mental short cuts that ease the cognitive load of making a decision.

Chaotic system - No constraints - complete randomness. Nothing is connected to anything else. It won't happen for very long. Humans will create order.

Most aim for an ordered system as they want simplicity and structure. This feels comfortable but actually comfort is the exact opposite of what you want if you aim to innovative and challenge convention. If you are looking to maximise potential in any sports organistion you should embrace complexity as that will lead to adaptive behaviours which can take advantage of emerging dynamic situations.

Can we use chaos to take advantage of the natural human disposition to create order and in so doing encourage self organisation towards complexity?

We can't say, "if you do this it will produce that effect". We can say, "if you do things like this it is likely to produce effects like these."

Future states can't be defined but you can map the present. We move from measuring goals to measuring vectors.

"Are we going in the right direction at the right speed?" instead of "have we achieved a specific goal."

Developing humans in any arena is complex and trying to measure this using discrete goals is not only inneffective but can also be counter productive.

If we focus on a 'critical path' based on our ultimate destination and then track the progress of our journey using regular orientation stops to check on progress (a virtual 'sat nav' if you like!) we can ensure that we don't go too far away from our intended route and don't waste too much time.

But by allowing the flexibility to deviate from this path we can explore areas that we did not originally consider and benefit from adapting and assimilating what we learn.

There was a lot more than this in the presentation and the there is a second part that I haven't had time to get to yet but hopefully you got as much from this as I did.

All the best


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