Managing Complexity


Managing complexity – plugging the greatest leak in humanity’s boat.

My 4th post described why humans have difficulty managing complexity. How tool-using animals, including humans, inherited the same profoundly simple genetically embedded decision-making framework. So profoundly simple we did not discover it till recently. Using a computer analogy we are delivered at birth with this “operating software” pre-installed in our brains. I also discussed how successful this genetic way is with everything we “make” ignoring long-term for the moment. If you watched Al Gore’s recent TED talk in which he expressed great excitement about the rapid advances with alternate benign forms of energy, that too is something we make – electricity from sun, wind, etc. – nothing we make involves complexity. However, we face ever-escalating problems with the things we “manage” that always involve complexity. Not only complexity of human institutions but of nature.

Only this morning I sat round my campfire with two researcher guests from the Kruger National Park area of South Africa. The discussion has not changed in sixty years. It was all about the many problems and what to do, being proposed by concerned scientists and others, leading to confusion and conflict over differing views. Every problem discussed was a symptom of present reductionist management, with all proposed actions still reductionist management. If I could live another 80 years I am sure we would be having the same discussion – whether it was about endangered animals, drugs, terrorism, migration to Europe or any other management issue. We are unlikely to break this endless cycle without a management revolution, which will happen when it makes sense to the public that management needs to be holistic and not reductionist.

How we can manage complexity.

Let me now describe how we have been able to manage complexity for close to fifty years with truly exciting results. Sticking with the computer analogy, I identified two glitches in our genetic operating software that make it difficult to manage complexity, and impossible to prevent man-made desertification leading to so many problems, as well as climate change. In this post I will deal with the holistic framework involving the first of two easy “system fixes” making it relatively easy to manage complexity.

To refresh – we need a context, or reason, for our actions. Without this anything can happen. Unintended consequences such as would occur with me lighting fires for no reason. We always do have a context, or reason, for our actions. Invariably it is meeting a need, desire, vision, making a profit, competing, etc. Commonly we take actions and develop policies, or development projects, to deal with a problem, as all of this morning’s discussion focused on. Such a simple context is generally adequate with things we make, none of which involve self-organizing complex systems. With all we manage however – involving social, environmental and economic complexity– reducing the complexity to a simple context results all too often in unintended consequences. So common that we have the “Law of unintended consequences” first expounded by economists I believe.

Management requires a holistic context.

Discovering what could provide a context for managing complexity was the most difficult part in learning how to manage complexity. Early results in the 1970’s reversing desertification by managing the complexity of animals, plants, soils and weather, with the context of a healthy productive and stable environment, were encouragingly impressive. However results then became inconsistent. Something was missing. Analyzing the disappointing results showed the problem was my mistake in that I had not catered for social and economic complexity simultaneously. The context was still too simple and management still reductionist. So what could provide the needed context while allowing us to meet needs, desires, make a profit or address problems? Gradually the concept of using a holistic context, and what would constitute such an over-arching context for management, emerged. Still this remained murky and confusing when I wrote the first two editions of the textbook Holistic Management. Over the last twenty years the concept has become more clear and simple to use, as will appear in the third edition of Holistic Management: A Commonsense Revolution to Restore Our Environment due for publication later this year. A holistic context was difficult to conceive of, and to develop, because there was nothing to guide us in any branch of science, religion or philosophy.

The necessary holistic context is developed in any management situation from a single person or family managing their lives, to national, or international, policy level. Every holistic context is unique because all managed situations are unique. Almost all holistic contexts have close similarities though because humans display greater similarity than differences, and we share the same fundamental needs, supported by the same life-supporting environment. What a very simple holistic context looks like can be seen in this example:

Simple generic holistic context.

We want stable families living peaceful lives in prosperity and physical security, while free to pursue our own spiritual or religious beliefs. Adequate nutritious food and clean water. Enjoying good education and health in balanced lives with time for family, friends and community and leisure for cultural and other pursuits. All to be ensured, for many generations to come, on a foundation of regenerating soils and biologically diverse communities on Earth’s land and in her rivers, lakes and oceans.

This generic holistic context is one I use personally when visiting new countries and cultures, reading reports, research, newspapers, listening to the news or when hearing what people are doing in management. As I learn what management actions are taking place – to meet needs, desires, achieve a vision, address a problem in policy or development projects – I simply view the actions in this holistic context to which most people would relate.

In practice of course a real holistic context is developed by the people making management decisions, or where management is affecting governance, entire nations or situations in which not everyone can develop the holistic context, a locally suitable generic holistic context is used. Considerable self-help and other material is available from the Savory Institute ( or its growing world-wide network of locally led and managed hubs.

Modifying our genetic framework and using the holistic framework for management, guided by such an over-arching context, it becomes relatively easy to manage social, environmental and economic complexity. And to do so from family to nation and beyond – in fact in every situation where we currently use the generic framework, which is everywhere. Having a holistic context to guide our actions is however not enough to ensure complexity is managed successfully in all parts of the world. There is still the second software glitch – the missing tool – to deal with as I will in the next blog post.

With relatively simple decisions as we go about our lives taking actions to meet our needs or address problems, we intuitively begin to know if they are in line with our holistic context. However we quickly learned that this was not the case with more difficult decisions. This difficulty was solved by recognizing that our minds generally cannot deal with more than two or three variables at a time, and so we developed a set of seven context checking questions. These questions, which I will not go into here, are used in a specific way like a mental crutch to ensure our actions, policies, etc. are truly socially, environmentally and economically sound both short and long-term in line with the holistic context.

I know most of you reading this for the first time will be rolling your eyes and thinking this sounds too difficult. You may well be saying just tell me what to do! I have. If I was describing to you how to ride a bicycle, the more I described the more confusing it would become. Given a bicycle, seeing it ridden and with a little coaching, you would find it easy as most people do.

After many years of training thousands of people I have learned most people, including semi-literate people, can begin managing complexity more successfully within a very short time. Some do so in as little as a day, although thereafter they become steadily more proficient. I have also learned while helping thousands of people that ignorance does not block learning, only what we already know and are familiar with, and our egos, block learning. For reasons not fully understood women generally understand and learn to practice Holistic Management faster than men and help men to understand the process.

Examples of Holistic Management.

Let me describe real life examples. First a single employed woman raising her son. This woman and her son stayed with my wife and I for some months training as a coach to villagers in Africa. When she learned about using a holistic context she asked me if she could do this in her own life. I helped lead her through developing her own holistic context – her and her son, not managing land but like all humans dependent on it, and the money she could earn – being the whole she was managing. Once she had a holistic context clearly stating how she wanted her life to be as a single parent raising an educated son, I suggested she simply begin using that to guide her daily management actions as a start.

A few days later she came to me in great excitement saying it works! Asked to explain she recounted how she had gone shopping taking her son and her shopping list. After piling a shopping cart, with items ticked off her list of needs, they had gone to the checkout counter. There, with people ahead, they had to wait. As they waited she remembered her holistic context and how she wanted her own, and her son’s lives to be. She looked at her shopping list with all their needs compared to the lives they wanted and sheepishly they went round returning most items to their shelves.

It can be literally as simple as that. Now let’s look at more complex policies. In the early 1980’s far-sighted officials in the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) commissioned me, over a two-year period, to provide a week of training in the use of the holistic framework for about 2,000 officials. Response to the training was enthusiastic with increasing demand and so the group was expanded to include all Federal land management agencies, U.S. Fish & Wildlife, USAID, World Bank and faculty members from Western universities. Participants were encouraged to bring their own policies and programs for use in the training. Over those two years participants analyzed all manner of natural resource policies and practices using the holistic framework. All policies without exception they concluded were likely to fail and to lead to unintended consequences. One group in training, after lengthy discussion, came to a unanimous view that we recorded – stating that they could now see that unsound resource management was universal in the United States.

Similar situations occurred, although with smaller samples of professional policy developers, in India and Lesotho where they analyzed policies of the Forest Service and Soil Conservation Service respectively. They (not me) determined their policies would worsen the situation.

Let me use a current example of importance to everyone. The UN recently announced 17 new Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to carry us to 2030. We do not need to wait till 2030 to learn the likely outcome. If I simply use the generic holistic context above, and look at the new SDG’s, it is clear that the social, environmental and economic complexity has been reduced to the various problems providing the context for each SDG. Even without going into the precise actions to attain such goals, the first context checking question asks if any goal or action is dealing with the cause of the problem or symptoms? These SDGs generally address symptoms of cultural practices (a few) and most symptoms of current reductionist management and of global desertification. Adding to that is the fact that current practices and policies of governments and international agencies, in the most problematic region right across North Africa and up into China, are exacerbating desertification and thus working against many of these SDGs.

Where we could never see the flaws in such well-meant SDGs using the genetic framework so no one is at fault or to blame, we can quickly do so using the holistic framework. We can predict with a high degree of certainty that there will be many unintended consequences, much wringing of hands and a new set of goals established in 2030 (or before) in a worsening situation. A repeat of the well-meaning previous failed Millennial goals.

Exciting future.

The truly exciting thing is that this endless cycle can be avoided just as fast as there is a significant shift in public understanding that management needs to be holistic. While it is indeed exciting that benign energy is emerging fast, that as we know deals only with stopping sending more carbon to our atmosphere from fossil fuels by making electricity from sun, wind, etc.- once more that we make – a small part of the problem. Climate change will persist because of carbon from agriculture through soil destruction, biomass burning and desertification – all management matters. Decarbonizing the atmosphere and moving the excess to the safest place in regenerating soils is again management. At the point when the public understand this our institutions can change not only developing SDG’s that do solve the problems by measures addressing the root causes in a holistic context, but also enabling us to seriously begin dealing with climate change.

I believe it is not will power that is lacking as many critics of bureaucracy and politicians suggest. It is not a lack of expert knowledge. It is simply that everyone concerned is unknowingly using the same genetically embedded framework. Truly a revolution in management is needed and long overdue that younger generations will have to bring about.

Had we thousands of years ago known about the need for a holistic context to guide our actions we could have managed complexity over much of the world – its oceans, lakes and near perennially humid terrestrial environments with the four tools humans have. However we still could not have done so over about two thirds of the world’s land surface where desertification is occurring because we lacked any tool that could do what is required. This missing tool, without which we cannot seriously address either global desertification or climate change, I will discuss in my next blog post.


Allan Savory

Allan Savory

Allan is a lifelong ecologist and the creator and co-founder of Savory Institute. He originated Holistic management, a systems thinking approach to managing resources. His Holistic Management textbook, and Holistic Management Handbook have influenced thousands of ranchers and land stewards across the globe.
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