Complexity notes and essays

Wrestling with systems and complexity practices

When I first set out to center my work on social questions in 2009, I went to school on the various threads of systems and complexity thinking. I worry that some readers may see this post and decide that “Rettig is an academic.” Sure, I do love me a broadly potent idea and a good grounding framework. And I’ve taught grad students steadily since the late ’90s. AND I get impatient with stuff I can’t use in practice with groups of people. To do what I do I need a foot in both worlds. (I’ll save the poetic lens for another day).

What are these links?

I aspire to adapt my teaching materials into helpful bits and gifts. (A thing I’ve learned: head knowledge about complexity is fun for some, boring for others, and by itself it’s not enough for anyone. We need to notice our experience of complexity, practice new habits of mind, and add that to our head knowledge.)

For now I thought some folks might be interested to have a list of the collections and essays I made as I absorbed this stuff and began to apply it. If you’re up on this stuff some of these will seem stale. If you’re just getting started, these might save you some time and provide useful perspective.

All the following essays and compilations are available on medium.com/@mrettig.


The problem with problems

The problem-solution mindset serves us well when things are predictable, or will at least yield their secrets to analysis. But for complexity (i.e., anything mostly made of people), we need to add to our kit. This is a short rant about that.

The problem with problems on medium.com

Notes on emergence

I sometimes use this pile of links and videos as the basis for a student assignment. “Surf these links, watch at least three videos, follow your curiosity, then let’s talk about it.” (Disclaimer: I’m aware that the Cynefin references in this piece are seriously out of date.)

A note about diagramming systems, on medium.com

Notes on developmental evaluation

When you’re working with long-haul emergence, when the work involves the whole community, when the desired outcomes are new patterns of relationship, story and behavior, how do you evaluate your progress? A beautiful, bountiful community of practice is growing around these questions.

Notes on developmental evaluation, on medium.com

A note about diagramming systems

The community of systems thinking and systemic design is important. And for some folks it’s the kind of thing that really wiggles their giblets—it becomes “the hammer in their hand.” Provoked by an encounter with someone who held system diagramming as a Great Way Forward, I wrote this love/hate letter to systems diagramming.

Notes on emergence, on medium.com

Notes on relationship constellations

This is more than just a way to see an organization, community or system. It helps us plan, design, and host conversations and activities that touch their web of relationships. I haven’t updated these notes since they were first collected. Meanwhile lots of new stuff has come on the scene. So consider this a starting point for a surfing session, not a current survey. My love to the ORSC community—practitioners of “organizational relational systems consulting.”

Notes on relationship constellations, on medium.com

Notes on dialogic organizational development

Top-down design-and-implement approaches to change are a dead end. In the world of management and organizational development, that lesson has yet to completely sink in. There’s a lovely and hopeful trend and community of practice in organizational development that takes a “dialogic” approach. They start from the observation that it’s all mostly made of conversations, ask how we can learn to work intentionally with that, and go from there.

Notes on dialogic organizational development, on medium.com

Notes on the conversational view

The idea that the stuff we call “social” is largely made of conversations is very useful, but it can be difficult to internalize. The implications and deep, wide, and sometimes subtle. Here are things that might help.

Notes on the conversational view, on medium.com

Snippets about play

Open play

is one key

to creative depth.


The Reach Global Design Research Network (of which my firm Fit Associates is a member) recently published its fourth in a series of books—Catalysts: thoughts on design research for meaningful change. The books collect essays and short snippets from projects, all written by members of the network. These snippets are my contributions to the PLAY theme, one of seven themes in the book.


A poetic lens on research and creativity

The fast pace of work and the pressure to perform too often drives teams to move quickly through the creative process. One unfortunate result of speed is shallowness. In research, we are tempted to spend less time with the people who will be affected by our work, treating them as resources from which we extract information rather than co-creators that hold deep wells of stories and meaning. In reflection we often default to simple analysis, looking for patterns in the cold data we’ve collected, but not truly holding conversation with the flows of life that surround our work. In making we feel pressure to deliver, and seldom take time to put our materials and resources in extended conversation with sensed possibility. 

In our experience at Fit Associates, play is one antidote to these temptations. In particular, what we might call “poetic play.” It doesn’t have to take a long time to bring more depth to the work, and depth doesn’t have to feel solemn or serious. Play brings a deeper human connection to the challenge and the work, an opening for more purposeful and profound consideration during design, and more friendship and joy of work for all involved. We sometimes involve our team, clients, and the community of use in activities like:

  • Making abstract models of the challenge or situation as though looking down from high above
  • Sketching ripple effects—our work will affect these people doing these activities in these places, which will affect more people in more activities in more places, which will affect…
  • Writing, drawing, or even role- playing based on poetic or mythic views of what’s going on and what’s possible: hero’s journey, inner lizards, angels and demons,…
  • Inviting people to take walks in pairs or threes, preferably in nature, with two or three big questions to consider in conversation as they stroll; then gathering in a larger group to discuss themes that arose as they talked.

Gina's portrait of her "inner lizard"
One result from the sandbox

Recovering sandbox time

For us at Fit Associates, what started as an experiment has become an enduring weekly ritual. In conversation with other busy entrepreneurs, we lamented the loss of time for simple play. Our work is creative and satisfying, but always full of expectations. “How long has it been,” we wondered, “since we played like kids in a sandbox, where there is no expectation that we will produce anything or perform well; we just play?”The experiment was to set aside 90 minutes together on Zoom with our friends in Mexico and Colorado. It begins with the question, “What are you thinking of doing today?” and ends with a few minutes to share what happened. Sometimes we play together, sometimes on our own. Sometimes people have a desire: “I’m going to write,” “I’m going to paint.” But often we just don’t know!  A breakthrough “method” is this: “I’m going to lie on my back, possibly nap, until I have an idea I’m excited about. Then I’ll get up and play with it.” 

Now a year and a half later, we’ve had long-distance rapid-fire photo walks together, we’ve written poems and essays, painted, danced our questions and our moods, napped, shared three-minute sketch challenges, improvised, and thoroughly charmed and surprised ourselves with what can happen in ninety minutes of open play. Through it all we are recovering lost wisdom: open play is a key to creative depth.