Edward Lorenz was examining the printout attached to his primitive computer — it was 1961 — when he noticed an interesting pattern in the weather system he was simulating.

You may be wondering what weather simulations have to do with health issues.  If you continue reading you will find out.  There are interesting and relevant similarities between the weather and health issues like obesity.

Lorenz decided he would like to watch the pattern of weather as it developed.  He typed in the data again, copying it from the printout.  This time the pattern did something very unexpected.  It developed very differently.  Computers aren’t expected to behave like that.

Then Lorenz realised what had happened.  His printout had only three digits after the decimal point.  Internally, however, the computer worked with six decimal places.

That’s a difference of less than one thousandth of each unit.  Yet it led to completely different outcomes.  At a conference he later reported his results in a paper entitled “Predictability: does the flap of a butterfly’s wings in Brazil set off a tornado in Texas?”

We call weather a complex system.  That’s anything in which there are many different aspects that interact in their effects.  Seemingly trivial differences can then generate big changes.  In other words you can’t predict what will happen with any accuracy.

Many health issues are also complex systems.  Weight management is an example.  That’s why obesity is regarded as an intractable problem.  There are many aspects to it.  Those aspects influence one another.

In addition, each person is unique.  For each person, different aspects may be influential and may interact in different ways.

This has important consequences.  For obesity and other complex health issues there is unlikely to be a solution that will work for everyone.  Each individual requires a different approach.

And that’s not all.  It will not be possible to plan the unique solution first and then put it into action.  Complex systems are unpredictable.  It will take trial and error, and persistence, to work out what will be effective.

Do you deal with complex systems like obesity?  If so, wherever you start may be the wrong place to start.  At the beginning you don’t — you can’t — know enough to understand where to start.  You and your client may have to work together to understand the situation.  You may then have to co-create several strategies and try them out.  You can then strengthen those that help and abandon those that don’t.

It may take intelligent trial and error, and persistence, and perhaps help from different practitioners.  Eventually, though, you will develop multiple strategies that collectively are successful.  That is what is needed when systems are complex.

Post by Bob Dick