Complexity Cocktails & How We Drink The Kool-Aid

It's Easter weekend - a time of year when I spend a little more effort to reflect on beliefs, confidence, doubts, ignorance, hope, and faith. Chief among the questions is a theme of asking what in my life do I defend and to what extent...along a spectrum from not-at-all up to final fatal battle of death.

In the last month or so, I've also been particularly watchful of how others and I promote and defend the ideas, content, stances, and agendas of leaders in their respective realms. Much of this is online, but also in person. The clues take on many forms. 

Who is drinking whose Kool-Aid? and Who is pissing in whose?

We can all imagine someone we know or follow who speaks in the same exact language as someone deemed a leader in a specific industry or community. These followers "like" or "share" or "retweet" darn near everything the leader posts. Everything the follower does is in direct harmony with the leader. It's a regurgitation without the addition of an original thought...and certainly not any provocation or challenge!  

Those practices alone are not evidence. But they are a red drink mustache on a first grader.

So let's get to the dirt. Who are some of the so-called idols that I frequently see being worshipped? Simon Sinek. Nassim Taleb. Stanley McChrystal. John Boyd (d.). Malcolm Gladwell. Tom Peters. Dave Snowden. Sir Ken Robinson. This is by no means a complete list, but rather just some of those in the leadership, learning, and complexity communities from which I spend time studying, reading, and learning.  They each have groupies, but also a passionate group of haters.

I also list those particular folks because I respect and admire their works, content, and ideas. They are those who have certain models, depictions, infographics, frameworks, systems, rules, concepts, and values.  I don't dare even suggest these leaders even remotely desire(d) the blind, robotic cult-like following they have on their coattails and social media feeds.

And for their models, most of us have probably heard the condensed version of this by George Box in 1978:
Now it would be very remarkable if any system existing in the real world could be exactly represented by any simple model. However, cunningly chosen parsimonious models often do provide remarkably useful approximations. For example, the law PV = RT relating pressure P, volume V and temperature T of an "ideal" gas via a constant R is not exactly true for any real gas, but it frequently provides a useful approximation and furthermore its structure is informative since it springs from a physical view of the behavior of gas molecules. For such a model there is no need to ask the question "Is the model true?". If "truth" is to be the "whole truth" the answer must be "No". The only question of interest is "Is the model illuminating and useful?"  
It does seem that the complex adaptive systems community experiences as much discord as any other with regards to accuracy or appropriateness of models, definitions, labels, categories, and such. The differences and disagreements are as diverse as the individual leaders' backgrounds, educations, research, experiences, and mindsets. Why would we expect a four-star General in the US military to think the same way as a software engineer? The words they use and definitions they assign to them cannot possibly be all in harmony. It's...well...complex!

So why do we have these cult followings? 
  • Desire to be accepted by the leader? 
  • Limited exposure to other ideas?
  • Seek of respect, via affiliation? 
  • Isolation from and ignorance of overlapping or conflicting theories? 
  • Bromance or infatuation? 
  • Calculated strategy to obtain work or career goals through association? 
  • Fear that deviation from the leader may be deemed as being a traitor?
  • Conditions of continued employment?  
  • Does it violate criteria set forth in a certification or lesson plan? 
  • Tested, authentic, devoted, unwavering faith and belief in the person and ideas? 
When I use (technical) words, I try to connect them with an idea, industry, model, framework, person, or other so that the reader or listener can better understand the context and how I'm defining it. It's futile to simply toss out Orientation Asymmetry without connecting it to something for the reader/listener as an anchor. (It's Boyd's OODA, by the way.) The same goes for Complicated - where I often attach it to Snowden's Cynefin. 

So whose Kool-Aid am I drinking?

I mix up a little bit from everyone into my own cocktail. Different parts of my life match up better with different flavors of modeling, defining, labeling, and categorizing. Different topics are better explained, taught, or analyzed by different means. After all, my background, education, research, experiences, and mindset is as unique as any of the leaders from whom I learn.

Much of my work is in the connection of dots. It's how we can integrate a variety of different sources, frameworks, research, topics, subjects, and approaches into something new, organic, and ever-changing. It requires that I draw from a diverse library...and also work with my students, learners, and readers when they bring up those with whom/which I am not yet familiar. My personal clusters of dots break, shift, and reconnect often.

Bluntly, I am not faithful to any one or group of them more than what I deem as appropriate respect. I learn from them all. I agree with them all. I also disagree with them all. I neither seek their approval nor fear their rejection. I stand on my own. If I cite them, it's because their work is infinitely more popular than mine & helps make a case for the argument or discussion at hand. I'm just as bold and confident to think they might even each be able to learn from me and my experiences. If not, I'm cool with that too. I don't hold my breath.

I write this certainly not to stroke any of the above named leaders. It's doubtful any of them would recognize me on the street. None of them need little ol' me to defend their ideas for them. While they've each played a valuable part in my journey, my life is quite complete without their collective or individual agreement with what I've created.

Rather, I hope this can serve as an encouragement for all of us to step back and ask what in our lives do we defend and to what extent...along a spectrum from not-at-all up to final fatal battle of death? And why? What other tools, sources, or people have valuable insight into the challenges we face? How can we connect, overlay, or stir them together for for something useful...but still wrong?

No one's model or Kool-Aid is perfect or complete. It's likely even Reverend Jim Jones tainted his drink with Flavor Aid during his Last Supper....among other poisons. 

We should all be cautious of what we drink. It shows up in our barf. 


Lou Hayes, Jr. is a police training unit supervisor in suburban Chicago. He studies human performance & decision-making, creativity, emotional intelligence, and adaptability. Follow Lou on Twitter at @LouHayesJr or on LinkedInHe also maintains a LinkedIn page for The Illinois Model.


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