As I scanned mass media’s response to the latest terrorist incident, I found very little evidence from representatives of our democracy either in government or journalism who understand the complex issues involved with prevention of systemic crises.

Among the most informed voices I found on this latest terrorism incident is Eugene Robinson at the Washington Post who is one of few who apparently can see the broader problem with respect to counter terrorism. After asking a series of logical questions in his column, he suggests:

“If that’s how the system works, we need a new system.”

Mr. Robinson is correctly stating a fundamental truism; systemic crises require systemic solutions, or a new holistic system designed for the specific challenge. He closes the column with another statement demonstrating wisdom:

“I can’t escape the uneasy feeling that we’re fighting, and escalating, the last war — while the enemy fights the next one.”

Drawing from multiple disciplines in system design

From a system complexity perspective, which is invaluable during the design phase, I often compare large organizations like the U.S. Government to biological systems; one of several disciplines we draw from. In neurology for example, which is a highly complex system, a small percentage of mature adults have been found to experience something comparable to what has been occurring in the U.S. Government called multiple system atrophy (MSA). Unfortunately for MSA patients, no cure has been identified, so doctors can only treat symptoms.

Similarly, we have witnessed a crisis management structure in the U.S. for some time that only addresses symptoms, demonstrated in grand fashion during and after the financial crisis where meaningful reform has failed, despite an extremely dangerous crisis.

Unfortunately for U.S. citizens, one of the symptoms of a dysfunctional organization system is one that successfully defends against improvement. When one symptom is addressed, others tend to pop up in unexpected and often unrecognizable formats, until finally the patient dies from ‘complications’ associated with the underlying disease that has gone untreated.

Obstacles to adopting new systems, or cures

It’s no accident that new correcting systems are rarely adopted by our federal and state governments, and increasingly society as a whole. The protectionism manifests in powerful lobbies representing groups who have interests aligned with the status quo; not the country or its citizens.

We witnessed this protectionism visibly in another highly complex system—healthcare reform, which failed to address the fundamental problem of unsustainable costs already twice as high as any other peer country, and spiraling upwards out of control.

The current healthcare reform efforts may or may not eventually lead to lower costs, but clearly the inability to address the disease even in the midst of crisis (ICU) signifies not just a messy system often associated with our democracy in the past, but rather a failing system. I wish it were not so, but that is what the evidence suggests to me when comparing to a wide variety of other systems.

The best method I have found to measure system failure in states or countries draws from another discipline in economics where the purity of mathematics tells no lies. The U.S. has the capacity to balance the budget, but the system has failed to do so for decades, with the one exception being a temporary tax revenue windfall from the dotcom bubble in the Clinton era. Unless we adopt new and better systems, we will fail; it is indeed a mathematical certainty.

The current system so protects the status quo that it all but assures that new systems will not be adopted, particularly any system that is effective, thus either killing innovations or neutralizing functionality in the adoption process.

The protectionist strategy was clearly crafted incrementally over decades purposely to prevent precisely what is now desperately needed. Incremental reform is the favored tactic for maintaining the status quo in the least disruptive manner, whether in politics or information technology. Generations to come will live with the consequences.

Good news bad news prognosis

The good news is that I believe a cure exists for what is ailing the U.S. Government—I have called the system Kyield, which was designed at great personal cost and sacrifice. The bad news is that the inventor and majority owner (me) isn’t corruptible (actually my wife and my mother think this is good news — whether this is good for the patient or not remains to be seen), so it is highly unlikely under the current contracting or grant schemes that the cure will be administered to the ailing patient.

So it will require a non-traditional form of adoption outside the normal government contracting infrastructure for Kyield, or I suspect any other potential cure, to reach the ICU in an undiluted, effective form.

Related articles:

How to prevent the next Fort Hood tragedy, by design.

A use case scenario developed specifically for the DHS:

(MM: As I was preparing to post this piece to the blog President Obama held a press conference, blaming “human and systemic failures” in the Detroit incident, saying that the current U.S. system “is not sufficiently up to date.” Otherwise, “the warning signs would have triggered red flags, and the suspect would have never been allowed to board that plane for America.”  This is essentially what I have been saying for over a decade, including recently to members of his senior staff. )

Mark Montgomery
Founder & CEO – Kyield
Twitter: @kyield

4 thoughts on “Systemic failure requires new holistic cure

  1. Please clarify what you mean by ‘status quo’ because I see two that are quite different.
    One status quo is concerned with sustaining the Constitution in its original meanings.
    The other status quo is the continuing effort to deconstruct capitalism. The financial crisis you mention is a symptom of the latter.
    Will your systems engineering idea harmonize both? Will it initialize a system that is capable of harmonizing all future conflicts?
    Jack Ring

  2. Interesting insight Jack

    I can certainly see how ‘status quo’ could be interpreted in many different ways in this discussion. You are reading a bit more into the article than I was focused on, but they are interrelated issues.

    Any such system is driven ultimately by the rule of law. I am primarily speaking to the status quo in government contracting, information technology industry cluster, and the incestual relationships with government agencies, all of which combine to essentially prevent real innovation or reform from occurring.

    This is true not only in government, but negatively impacts innovation worldwide, which is frankly one reason why firms like Sequoia for example are raising large funds — larger than any of their previous U.S. funds, for deploying in China. A leading VC friend recently told me that he still believes that Silicon Valley has the most attraction for world class entrepreneurs. My response was that we cannot separate dysfunctional democracies like that of California from entrepreneurism — and that burying ventures with strategic CA institutional capital only makes conditions worse, not better. In other words, venturing depends on a functioning government to include market regulation and crisis prevention, and government ultimately depends on venturing. I am not at all a proponent of the Chinese structure, but I recognize the competitive realities we face in the U.S.

    I focus on large organization functionality primarily because they dominate global economics — if we don’t adopt better systems in large organizations, and particularly governments, I came to the difficult conclusion that none of our work may matter anyway.

    Certainly within the context of the U.S. and government agencies as discussed in this post — logical systems design, I am specifically concerned with supporting the Constitution. Supporting the Constitution is not only the rule of law, but it also contains among the most intelligence embedded of any document I’ve studied, including providing a method to adapt to changing conditions.

    One adaptation that might be needed for the U.S. system to continue to function would be a clarification of the first amendment — freedom of speech as it relates to lobbying and the negative influence those efforts have on system function, as that does seem to be a core problem for the broader system that is the U.S. Suffice to say that I have no other agenda relating to the Constitution other than following it, but frankly that is beyond my responsibility here — the CKO module in Kyield is specifically designed to be adaptable for changing conditions — and different types of organizations; setting security parameters, who can share what with whom — automatically or not, and several other non regulatory issues dealing with info overload, aligning incentives, and workplace productivity, to name a few. So it would work just as well in South Africa as in the U.S. or EU, or in any large company.

    It’s important to note however that even when dealing with U.S. agencies, terrorism is a global issue, with many of the battles being waged in global networks — wired or not, so the U.S. is only one of many jurisdictions involved — particularly important when designing information sharing systems like we highlight in the DHS use case scenario, which is international.

    2) I have had similar fears with respect to the financial crisis. It’s nearly impossible for me to believe that ideological activist intent was not involved in the housing crisis. I have some experience with the culture in global banks and most of the university cultures the smart guys came from who designed the systems. He doesn’t speak to intent of destruction, but Richard Bookstaber’s book speaks to the culture and risk factors more generally: ‘A Demon of Our Own Design: Markets, Hedge Funds, and the Perils of Financial Innovation’.

    My own view is that anyone who has the intellect to design the mortgage securities apparatus, CDS, etc. almost certainly understands the risk — just as Bookstaber does, so ideological activism that you infer I think is more than plausible, but rather almost certain. At the very minimum, the financial crisis absolutely falls under the often used clause ‘should have known’. It would be difficult to convince me that criminal intent did not exist fairly broadly in the financial crisis.


    JR: Will your systems engineering idea harmonize both? Will it initialize a system that is capable of harmonizing all future conflicts?

    MM: This is probably too much to ask of any system designer — the U.S. Constitution for example has hardly prevented ‘all future conflicts’, although I suspect it did prevent many outside of our field of vision. However, it is true that by aligning interests in system structures — today primarily in the digital workplace of course, we do have the capacity to prevent conflicts that would almost certainly not have been prevented otherwise. And we absolutely have the ability to prevent most of the human caused crises some are attempting to argue cannot be prevented — they are simply wrong. That argument reminds me of so many in the past — usually to protect turf and always steeped in ignorance of the issues.

    My task in designing Kyield was to overcome very specific barriers in the digital workplace environment. Initially I was focused on continuous learning — particularly mentoring and self-learning, and then we were confronted with the very difficult barriers to innovation both in public networks and in private. In testing early versions I found that by using our own system in conjunction with the global medium we were able to make fairly accurate predictions, particularly financial crises (due to data available). If it can be predicted it can then of course be prevented, with the right tools — so I set out to design the tools.

    By process of elimination I discovered that these and other issues were directly related, and finally I realized that in order to overcome one issue well, we needed to address them all. Only when I began looking at the challenge through the holistic lens did it begin to come together — another five years or so before the design was formalized in a patent application — 3 years ago, with significant evolution since.

    BTW — the Santa Fe Institute has recently taken up the challenge of basic research on conflict. I observed a presentation on their early work in primates and it was quite interesting. When combined with complexity theory, advanced calculus, physics, sociology, and predictive theory, you can then see why the basic research at SFI overlaps our work with Kyield. The deep scientific bench at LANL, SFI, and others is one of the reasons we are located in Santa Fe, the other being of course that my wife and I are acclimatized to the high desert from many years in N AZ and are inspired by nature — mountain lovers.

    Thanks for the comments and question. It certainly is an intellectually stimulating group of interrelated topics, although frankly I would feel much better about the work if Kyield were deployed and preventing loss of life, happiness, futures, and liberties. — MM

Leave a Reply