Edgeware - Aides


Complexity lens
Good enough vision

Multiple actions

Minimum Specifications

Paul Plsek & Associates

The basic idea:

Establish only those very few requirements necessary to define something, leaving everything else open to the creative evolution of the CAS.

Because it works
Managing a living thing
Another way to think
World wide complexity
Emerges from the fabric
Permission to experiment
A way of connecting


Potential context for use:
  • Designing or planning something.
  • Choosing between options.


One of the most remarkable findings about complex adaptive systems is that simple rules can lead to complex behaviors. The classic example of this is the "Boids" computer simulation, developed in 1987 by Craig Reynolds. The simulation consists of a collection of autonomous agents-the boids-placed in a environment with obstacles. Each agent follows three simple rules: (1) maintain a minimum distance from all other boids and objects, (2) match speed with neighboring boids, and (3) move toward the center of mass of the boids in your neighborhood. Remarkably, when the simulation is run, the boids exhibit the very life-like behavior of flying in flocks around the objects on the screen. They "flock," a complex behavior pattern, even though there is no rule explicitly telling them to do so. While this does not prove that real birds use these simple rules, it does show that simple rules - minimum specifications - can lead to complex behaviors. These complex behaviors emerge from the interactions among agents, rather than being imposed upon the CAS by an outside agent.


In contrast, we often over-specify things when designing or planning new activities in our organizations. This follows from the paradigm of "organization as a machine." If you are designing a machine, you had better think of everything, because the machine cannot think for itself. Of course, in some cases, organizations do act enough like machines to justify selected use of this metaphor. For example, if I am having my gall bladder removed, I would like the surgical team to operate like a precision machine; save that emerging, creative behavior for another time! Maximum specifications and the elimination of variation might be appropriate in such situations.

Most of time, however, organizations are not machines; they are complex adaptive systems. The key learning from the simulations is that in the case of a CAS, minimum specifications and purposeful variation are the way to go.

Paper tear

Looking closer at the Boids, we see some key elements of the aide of Minimum Specifications (i.e., the minimum specifications for Minimum Specifications):

  • Don't attempt to define the outcome or behavior of the system in detail.

  • Provide "local" rules that can be applied by individual agents, or in individual cases.

  • Have only a very few such rules.

  • Allow complex behavior to emerge from the bottom-up in the system through interactions among agents, or between agents and the context.


In clockware situations, maximum specifications and the elimination of variation are the way to go. In swarmware situations, minimum specifications and purposeful variation are the way to go.

A practical approach to establishing minimum specification would be to begin with a "good enough vision" of the desired outcome. Then brainstorm a list of rules you might reasonably expect to lead to that outcome. Follow the rules of brainstorming; no criticism allowed. Now step back from the list and challenge each proposed rule by asking: "Can we imagine a situation where we get our desired outcome even though this rule is violated?" If you can, eliminate the rule. Also cross off rules that are simply minor variations of other rules. With the list whittled down, go back through each rule again and ask: "If all the other rules are met, but this one is violated, will we certainly fail to achieve our desired outcome?" Think of each rule as unnecessarily constraining creativity. If you can imagine situations where you still get the desired outcome even if that rule is violated, throw it out, it is not a minimum spec. Continue this process until you have only a few rules left, and all pass the test above.



Before using this aide: What has happened in the past when we have tried to use maximum specification and total conformance in our design and planning efforts? How has this experience contrasted with times when we have given people few rules and lots of freedom to act?

After using this aide: What creative approaches can we imagine that would still meet our minimum specifications? What can we now do to tune our organization to the edge of chaos?


An example of establishing minimum specifications is given in the attachment. Additional examples of how we used "min specs" in designing this resource kit are given in the introductions to both the Aides and the Tales of Complexity







Multiple actions

Facilitator's Tips:
  • Follow the process described above to get started using this Aide, but do not be constrained by it. This is just one way to do it using familiar group tools like brainstorming and group discussion. Experiment.

  • Take it slow and really think as you whittle down the list to a minimum. Challenge quick-judgment statements like: "You gotta have that." Ask: "Wait a minute, you're telling me that there is no possible way to achieve the outcome unless that rule is applied?"

  • Revisit the minimum specifications from time to time as you proceed with the actual work that the specs refer to. Stress creative experimentation. Check to see that new "rules" (constraints on how we are thinking about what must be) have not inadvertently crept into use. Review the list and challenge each rule anew; do we really need each rule?

  • When faced with a choice among options, go back to the minimum specs. Eliminate options that violate a rule (after reaffirming that the rule really is absolutely necessary). If you have multiple options that all meet the minimum specs, look for ways to try them all and let direction emerge.






Good enough vision


Generating Minimum Specifications for This Complexity Resource Kit

As you will see in the introductions to several sections in this kit, we used minimum specifications throughout our design work. An elaboration on one such instance will serve as an illustration of this aide.

1.   At the first meeting of the planning group (Curt Lindberg, Brenda Zimmerman, and Paul Plsek) we discussed what it was that we were trying to create. After some dialogue, we had a good enough vision: "A learning experience for innovators and early adopters that equips them to go out and generate, capture, reflect on, and understand complexity stories." We also noted that we wanted the learning experience to be "living;" that is, we hoped that individuals and groups that took part in the experience would be able to go out and reproduce it with others.

2.   We then brainstormed specifications for this learning experience. Every idea was boarded for consideration-no judgment at this phase of the effort.

3.   After several minutes of brainstorming we felt that we had exhausted our ideas. We then went back through the list asking: "Do we really need that spec, can't we still have a good learning experience without it?" One "rule" that was easily eliminated was the statement: "Participants should be teams from an organization." We could easily imagine a good learning experience for an individual. Indeed, our initial learning group was composed almost entirely of individuals. Several other rules were similarly eliminated, or were removed as being redundant with other rules.

4.   We now had a list of seven specifications for the learning experience we hoped to create:

  • everyone has enough content to enable intelligent conversation.

  • actions during the experience should be consistent with complexity theory.

  • all agree to be complementary learners; committed to continuous awareness and open, honest, safe reflection, both individually and collectively.

  • good enough diversity, ever-changing (as much as practical and possible to avoid in-breeding).

  • participants have the capacity, permission, and responsibility to take action in their home CAS's.

  • enough time together for rich information flow (to enable/allow reproduction).

  • a safe container for reflection.

5.   While this looks like a nice, logical, short list, we then went back through it one more time to challenge whether it really was a minimum list. Considering each rule a potentially unnecessary restriction on our creativity, we took them one at a time and asked: "If all the other rules are met, but this one is violated, do we really risk not achieving our desired outcome?"

In this process, we eliminated the second item in the list above, "actions during the experience should be consistent with complexity theory." On the surface, this seemed an obvious rule. Surely, if we were going to help others understand complexity, we must model it consistently in our behavior at all times. But on reflection, we realized that actions that were inconsistent with theory could actually enhance the learning experience. If participants were really learning, then they should be able to point out these inconsistencies. The reflection and discussion that followed could be very rich. Besides, removing this specification takes away the burden on everyone to always be unnaturally perfect.

The six remaining rules are the minimum specifications for the learning experience that we are designing associated with this Resource Kit.

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Copyright 2001, Paul E. Plsek & Associates,
www.directedcreativity.com Permission to copy for educational purposes only.
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