Once something is already complicated, it becomes easier and easier to add to the mess. That behaviour needs to be reversed or accept at some point it will be ‘all change’ as the system collapses and a new one arises.


Clay Shirky has a great post about the collapse of complex business models, referencing a 1988 book that examined the collapse of societies. Here’s a quick summary:

Joseph Tainter looked at several societies that gradually arrived at a level of remarkable sophistication then suddenly collapsed: the Romans, the Lowlands Maya, the inhabitants of Chaco canyon. Every one of those groups had rich traditions, complex social structures, advanced technology, but despite their sophistication, they collapsed, impoverishing and scattering their citizens and leaving little but future archeological sites as evidence of previous greatness. Tainter asked himself whether there was some explanation common to these sudden dissolutions. The answer he arrived at was that they hadn’t collapsed despite their cultural sophistication, they’d collapsed because of it… When society’s elite members add one layer of bureaucracy or demand one tribute too many, they end up extracting all the value from their environment it is possible to extract and then some.

The ‘and then some’ is what causes the trouble.

I think most systems are susceptible to this phenomena and it’s usually a case of when rather than if the failure will occur. A system grows, new capabilities are introduced along with the need to administer/manage those capabilities. The system grows some more and so the layers are added. Within those layers, new systems emerge and also grow, introducing changes that often have little to do with the original system. And so the complexity builds. It becomes impossible to separate out the different components and reaches the point where one seemingly minor change ripples through the entire system and demolition occurs. In a nutshell, it’s what happened to the banking system. Similar flaws are evident in many government taxation systems. In 2005, I read an article in The Economist discussing the benefits of flat rate taxes. Available online if you subscribe, here’s the introduction:

The more complicated a country’s tax system becomes, the easier it is for governments to make it more complicated still, in an accelerating process of proliferating insanity—until, perhaps, a limit of madness is reached and a spasm of radical simplification is demanded.

The article describes how charging a flat rate of income tax could result in people paying less tax and the government having more money to distribute because the costs to administer the tax system would be massively reduced. Trouble is, to do so would also require massive redundancies, a concept never popular within government no matter how in debt they may be. But it would be interesting to know what percentage of taxes collected are spent on administering the system.

On a smaller scale, the same phenomena can be seen in software. Features get added with each new version increasing the complexity of the product. Then along comes a rival that offers a less functional but much simpler solution to the same problem and the leader is toppled.

And the same challenges can also be seen in companies. Management decides to remove what is considered to be a small perk of the job and people quit en masse. It’s not that losing the perk is so terrible, rather that it is the wake up call, the final straw, the tipping point that makes people decide enough is enough. This was covered in a great post at The Elves leave Middle Earth – sodas are no longer free

So if all systems head towards collapse, what can be done about it? I think Dave Allen, of Getting Things Done fame, has a tip that would benefit many. In an article for Wired UK – How to reap what you sow – he made the following comment:

“As soon as you let something lie randomly, though you know you need to do something about, it becomes much easier to drop any of those kinds of things”

I’m a shocker for not opening my post. Once I’ve got a couple of unopened letters in the tray, it becomes easier and easier to add tomorrow’s post to it, justifying with, ‘well I’ll open all the post in one go at the end of the week…’ until I’ve got a month’s worth of post piled up. It’s the same principle as the comment made by The Economist. Once something is already complicated, it becomes easier and easier to add to the mess. That behaviour needs to be reversed or accept at some point it will be ‘all change’ as the system collapses and a new one arises.

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Join the conversation! 3 Comments

  1. Weirdly the tweet I got before this one was on a similar theme, concerning the £80million per year that the taxpayer gives to a private company, Atos, for administration of medical examinations of claimants of disability benefits. Note that Atos’ assessments are in addition to statements already provided by each claimant’s own NHS GP, hospital consultant, social worker and other professionals. No one is entirely sure what additional evidence Atos staff glean that the NHS has missed… it just seems to be an extraneous yet expensive bureaucratic layer.

  2. I think we need a web site to list all these different examples. I received a link last week that IR35 legislation had cost £73 million to implement and generated a gigantic £9 million in additional taxes. Nuts.

  3. Social comments and analytics for this post…

    This post was mentioned on Twitter by grumbledook: New blog post: The Inevitable Collapse of Systems http://bit.ly/aSClSr /via @joiningdots

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