Steering for the organizational Lagrange Point

A discussion comment from a LinkedIn conversation on Systems Thinking World to clarify what “steering” means for complex systems and in response to a question (paraphrased).

So can you describe how “small changes at a location in a system alters the direction of the whole,” discussing the theory, certainly, but also examples because this dense country boy sometimes has trouble wrapping his mind around abstractions.


Yes, it would help to think of “steering point” as referring to a potential for controlling the direction of something, unless also speaking of someone or thing using it to steer something. They might also be like Lagrange Points in space, where due to a balance of forces it’s easier to turn.

For natural systems there’s a particularly large variety of situations where “small change” has “big influence”.  It would include all the temporary positive “feedbacks”.  You might as well just start listing them at the beginning.  There was the “big bang”.  We didn’t directly observe it but from all appearances it was produced by a process that multiplied from small beginnings, and really really blew up.  That original chain of events was very small and had big results!

That ANY event in nature implicitly starts with its own “big bang” of a sort is one of the curious direct implications of the continuity principle.   The proof is that it would violate energy conservation for energy uses to start without developing, requiring an individual burst of energy uses and the development of the processes doing it for every event.

True, you often don’t notice them, but with a little experience you can find them most places, like in a keystroke.  Any keystroke begins with a brief multiplying cascade of focused energy releases to move your finger, “kaboom” is how it would sound if you stretch out the time scale and have a volume control on the energy surge moving your finger.   It’s the attack of the “ka…” sound at the beginning of that word (same use of “attack” as in music), that refers to the explosive growth period if the local self-organizing system that releases the directed energy.

As you can tell this would be a really long discussion to start listing all the types of “small change big consequence” situations in nature.   Most seem to be non-deterministic, is one reason they have not been studied so much.   It’s certainly wonderfully fascinating that science skipped such a big subject too, but you might easily guess why.   Most of them simply cannot be usefully represented in theory, and they conflict with determinism as a universal principle.

There’s just too darn many kinds of them too, and they’re intensely complex and highly temporal, individually unique or might as well be.  The big ones, like economic growth where each year’s change multiplies next years, are too vast and complex accurately model, so you need to ask usually simple questions to get firm answers.

The category of small event with big effects worth a bit more study than others are the types of internal “mid-course correction” that can transform a multiplying growth process into a stable self-managing system.   That is sometimes what allows systems that start with explosive growth but then change internally to outlive their growth process.

Living systems transform internally by a mid-course correction (somehow) allowing them to stop multiplying their demands to start maturing and adapting to the new environment their growth has thrust them into.   It’s a really profound behavioral change, that occurs at about the least eventful point on the “S” curve, the middle inflection point.  It’s a point where little about the system is changing except transforming its way of changing, from exploding to maturing.  Nature uses it like an organizational Lagrange point, for a gigantic effect costing nest to no energy.

You see it in detail when someone with a business reinvests its profits so it can grow faster and faster, till that would be wasteful to continue.   Then they redirect that self-investment resource (their mid-course steering correction) to grow something else.   That tiny choice to reallocate the stream of positive feedbacks from the business’s environment transforms it from an unstable sprout with multiplying demands, a “flash in the pan”, into an enduring part of its local economic network.


3 thoughts on “Steering for the organizational Lagrange Point”

  1. “It’s a point where little about the system is changing except transforming its way of changing, from exploding to maturing.”

    This sentence (metaphorically, fortunately) blew my mind. In my own fascination with the dynamics of biological & human social systems, it’s this point of “choice” when an organism or society pivots which is most interesting and beguiling. What are the mechanisms by which this shift occurs– on the cellular, organismic, cultural level? Is this transformation a requirement for long-term stability? I’ll be chewing on this idea for quite a while.

    BTW, I just discovered your writing today (I was chasing down the Jevons paradox and landed here: Looking forward very much to digging deeper.

    1. I’m delighted you liked my way of raising the subject of “choice points” in system evolution. I assume their mechanisms are cascades of things, as they seem to emerge from invisible scales of behavior. So, I usually pay more attention to how they seem to occur as periods of pause or inaction for other things. In making personal decisions one can have all the information you need, and still have to struggle to find what you “want” to do, which then just emerges or not, as if from another level of feeling or thinking. Sometimes making a choice of new direction is critical, sometimes avoiding one is. “It depends.” So I mostly just watch natural development processes as they approach their choice points to study what happens, rather than having much theory. It helps accumulate ideas about them that keep raising fresh questions.

  2. Adrienne,
    Just to recap, the real value of studying choice points in nature is having more options to consider yourself, and probably being able to anticipate their approach. In the development of personal relationships perceptions may easily outpace reality, for example. Then being ready to respond to the reality matters a great deal. Likewise in the economy, you may find you’ve fooled yourself into planning on a limitless earth, and suddenly realize you’re late in responding. Just thinking over the many other critical choice points in your experience will give you more options for the present. One’s own experience will confirm that developing systems of relationships that start out with a notable “honeymoon” period of success, have to change, and mature or die. The choice to begin maturing needs to be made in time, if developing on an “S” curve turning toward survival is to become a reality.

    These guide points are extremely valuable information on how to protect your most valuable investments.

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