Deploying effective mining strategies require a closer look at the “yellow bubble” the industry is in today.
The apex or dominant predator is Systems Thinking deploying an engineering paradigm. Mature solutions are struggling to solve today’s problems. The “the whole is equal to the sum of its parts” engineering model is limited because it does not address real world phenomena such as non-linearity, emergence, underlying patterns, self-organization, tipping points, fast feedback loops, non-reducibility.
Academic and pragmatic rethinking has led to the realization there are 3 systems that comprise the real world: Order, Chaos, and Complex.
It should come to no surprise to anyone that Complexity is expanding dramatically. Every new connection a human makes increases complexity. Besides other humans, connections include system agents such as non-human objects, events, ideas – anything that might impact or influence a decision made by the person. Now add smart devices interacting with machines through algorithms. No one can predict how the increase in complexity will influence agent behaviour change, create new agents, and enable unanticipated good and bad consequences to emerge. Working in the complex system demands a holistic “the whole is greater than the sum of the parts” view.
Strategy = Stability + Agility
Stability is the highly desired property of the Order system. But it’s not enough to achieve long-term sustainability. Agility is necessary to deal with the disruption of the Chaotic system and the uncertainty of the Complex system. Stability is associated with Robustness and Agility with Resilience. So our overarching mining strategy is to strengthen robustness and build resilience.
Strategy as Liminal Cynefin dynamics
The Cynefin Framework is used around the world for making sense of the present. The Order system is divided into Complicated and Obvious domains. In the middle is a fifth domain called Disorder, the state of not knowing which domain you are in presently.
In mining operations, work is primarily done in the Obvious domain. Mine workers skilled in best practices comply within established rules. This is Stability represented by the blue arrow. Problems that cannot be readily resolved move into the Complicated domain to engage experts like analysts and engineers (β). These are deemed “tame” and can be fixed with additional expertise utilizing reductionistic methods. Once a solution is found, system robustness is strengthened by revising processes, adjusting technologies, and training human on the amended work practices (𝛅).
A Stability strategy has the benefit of dealing with known knowns, the certainty of a predictable future and entails reductionistic cause & effect analysis. If, however, after a reasonable amount of time experts are still confused and unable to find a solution, the problem is no longer considered complicated. There are too many unknown unknowns. So it is deemed complex and the strategy shifts to Agility. Agility requires a different perspective – managing the evolution of the Present and observing what emerges.
An Agility strategy involves dynamic movement through the Cynefin Framework. It is represented by the blue loop, a path from the Complicated through a liminal green zone (Ɣ) into the Complex domain. The liminal state between Chaotic and Complex is what some people mean when they talk about the Edge of Chaos.
In this transition between domains, a task team is assigned to apply an anthro-complexity approach and complex problem-solving methods. Complexity is chaos with one important difference; there are inherent underlying structures in the system. Hidden complex patterns can be found everywhere in nature. Birds flock, fish swarm, ants colonize by following simple rules.
A branch of anthropology called ethnography gathers narratives such stories, recordings, photos, drawings to make sense of the current conditions. Thick data helps to discover underlying patterns and hidden cause & effect relationships. Informed experiments are conducted to change system constraints which can lead to a new solution emerging. This is the essence of the creative process.
The proposed solution is fully tested in a second liminal zone (α) to ensure it is sufficiently stable to bring back to the Complicated domain for implementation (β).
The purple loop depicts another Agility strategy which deals with uncontrollable wicked problems characterized by high levels of uncertainty, turbulence, and confusion. This is the world of external shareholders, politics, citizens and managing the Social License to Operate. When in a state of constant flux, the strategy is to be agile and remain perpetually in the Complex domain.
Complex Adaptive Systems of Systems
At the highest level, every mining company is a Complex Adaptive System. Nested below are sub-systems (e.g., planning, financial, operating, supply chain, customer, IT, EHS) that have elements of order and complexity. People belong to and interact with many sub-systems. Some sub-systems form coherent units that have its own identity, role, and social culture. A crew in an operating system is an example of a formal authorized unit. Identity includes boundaries and aspects of the work environment. People will also informally self-organize into study groups, clubs, and communities of practice. Such beneficial units are complex and typically bonded by the attraction of shared knowledge.
The ramifications for implementing change are huge. In an Order system where there is a high level of unit buy-in and context alignment, “clone & replicate” works. Company-wide roll-outs can be accomplished and outcomes measured. However, if there are cries of “it doesn’t work here” or “we can’t do that”, it’s not resistance to change but people saying our context is different. It’s complex.
In this case, the change methodology is “decompose and recombine.” Decompose into what is ordered and complex. Combine the ordered aspects. Tackle the complex elements with complex problem-solving. And take advantage of opportunities that serendipitously emerge. In complexity language, an effective change implementation needs to be fractal in operations.
As we move into the Age of Ecology, mining executives who choose to develop people with linear problem-solving skills to strengthen robustness plus complex problem-solving competencies to build resilience stand a far greater chance of achieving sustainability.
Colander & Kupers in their 2014 book Complexity and the art of public policy: Solving society’s problems from the bottom up wrote “Control, power, and authority are not necessary to establish Stability. Rather, complexity science shows that system interactions can reach a self-organizing and replicating stability on their own through the process of emergence.”
This insight conceivably means Stability +Agility will converge into one strategy. The first step in any problem-solving session is to start in Cynefin Disorder domain (Ɣ). The first question to ask is: In which system – Order, Complex, Chaos – does the problem reside?