Simple rules can solve complex problems - Veterinary Practice
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Simple rules can solve complex problems

CHRIS WHIPP returns to a discussion of the ways we think and respond to different situations and the challenge of getting everyone in the practice involved in a positive way – just like starlings…

ONE of the ironies of being a veterinary surgeon is that we are trained to think linearly when most of what we do is with systems that are anything but linear.

We spend our lives treating and trying to enhance the quality of life of a variety of species that are entrusted to our care, we know that they are complex biological systems and yet it is often only as we learn from experience in practice that we can step beyond the linearity of our training.

If this is not enough, the practices within which we work are frequently full of complex human interactions that get in the way of our common goals.

I ended my last article with a challenge to develop some simple rules that would control a murmuration of 30,000 starlings in a productive way. The challenge was to explain how birds each with a brain less than half the size of a pea develop the skills needed to work collaboratively in such a spectacular way and to develop a simple set of rules to control the flock.

The videos are available at (skip first 40 seconds) or – and if you want to give it a try aim for no more than seven rules of fewer than 10 words each.

The concepts presented here come from the field of Human System Dynamics (http://wiki.hsdinstitute. org) and may equally be applied to our approach to our clinical work or those that we work with on a day-to-day basis.

Whilst we are trained in the simple linear logic of the reductionist empirical scientist, the world is populated with an immense array of complex self-organising systems that work to an entirely different set of rules, so what’s the difference?

  • Simple System. Simple logical progression from cause to effect – consider the cabin thermostat in a Boeing 747, temperature goes down, heat switches on and vice versa.
  • Complicated System. Simple and logical, just complicated – consider a Boeing 747 that has 4 million parts but, with the right skills, you could dismantle it completely, put it back together and it would fly.
  • Complex Adaptive System. Complex functioning with multiple interactive sub-systems: the whole is larger than the sum of the parts and cannot be reduced/ rebuilt, demonstrates emergence (unpredictable outcomes) and learns from experience – consider an air traffic control system or perhaps a veterinary practice.

For much of modern human history the linear approach has served us well, producing fairly predictable results in fairly predictable situations, and it is only in the last 30 years or so that cracks have appeared as the rate and scale of change has escalated to the point where emergence (unpredictable outcomes) and exponential feedbackdriven (good and bad) outcomes have become more significant.

Businesses now struggle with these changes which reflect both as productivity problems for the business and well-being issues for the staff.

The responses available to us are limited:

  • Ignore it. Simply continue doing what we have always done and hope we won’t be affected – the course taken by many SMEs.
  • Simple solutions. Apply simple linear logic and accept the outcome will be less predictable – hoping for the best.
  • Complicated. Treat complex situations as a complicated problem – many try this (protocols, SOPs, etc.) but rapidly exceed the intellectual capacity available with unpredictable outcomes.
  • Systems-based approaches. Change the rules and work with the system rather than against it – amongst other things develop simple rules.

Human Systems Dynamics ( suggest, “Simple rules help guide the behaviours and interactions of members of any group. Whether by conscious agreement or by unspoken assent, members of a group appear to engage with each other in consistent ways that can be captured as a short list of simple rules”.

Simple rules can be used to shape a desired future. Organisations can identify patterns they want to generate and define simple rules that seem most likely to help them generate those patterns. What is critical in establishing system-wide patterns is that everyone has to use a shared set of simple rules at all levels of decisionmaking and action.

This requires a shared understanding of what the rules mean and agreements to use the rules to make decisions. This can apply as much to the starlings as to the employees of your practice.

Without going into the intricacies of Systems Thinking, the good news is that complex problems can be solved with simple rules. We think in inherently simple, linear ways and simple rules provide solutions that are simple, flexible though not necessarily easy.

Simple rules are different from the norms we name for meetings and short-term interactions. Simple rules are intended to be more generally applied and not time-bound. They are also different from values and beliefs because they are about action.

They are not like mission statements, created in a morning and potentially ignored for a lifetime. They start with a verb, so they shape behaviours, not just hopes. They disseminate both power and responsibility throughout an organisation and it is important that everyone contributes to their development. Effective simple rules include the following characteristics:

  • Are few in number (typically 3-7 work best), so they are easy to remember.
  • Are general statements that apply in any situation.
  • Are always stated in the positive so you know what you “should” do.
  • Start with an action verb.
  • Address the three conditions for self-organising systems:
    1. The container for the system.
    2. The differences/diversity within the system.
    3. The exchange of information and resources within/without the system. The challenge is to get everyone involved in a positive way but there are ways of doing this even within the dysfunctional environment that exists in many organisations.

So, back to the starlings and how do we create such beauty and coordination, simplicity from complexity?

The rules for the flock might be:

  • Fly towards the centre of the flock.
  • Match your speed to those around you.
  • Avoid hitting anyone.

If you would like to know more about systems-based approaches, e-mail

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