All emergence processes are based on the accumulation of local interactions creating systemic patterns that return to impact the very elements that have created them in the first place (see Emergence). Hence systemic feedback is a key mechanism driving complex structures. Yet when exploring the trajectory of feedback effects, we can differentiate between two kinds: a positive, or amplifying feedback effect; and a negative or stabilising feedback effects. It’s important to stress that the terms ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ do not reflect any value judgement of ‘good’ or ‘bad’ but rather directions of effects. Their contribution as explained below depends of the context within which they unfold.

A positive feedback effect is one in which an intervention in the system, even a small one, sets off a continuously amplifying movement in the same direction, in other words a snowball effect. With every feedback loop the original pattern is further destabilised and the system moves further away from its original state. Such dynamics can be seen in the way conflicts escalate, epidemics spread, stock markets rally, or fashion trends take hold. Under certain conditions all that is needed is a small push for the acceleration to take hold.

Ice Bucket Challenge participants Ice Bucket Challenge participants

While it is impossible to predict or engineer a positive feedback effect, setting one off is deemed a holy grail in advertising circles. While the original push can require little resources and energy, fed by its own momentum it can have tremendous impact. Take for example the famous ice-bucket challenge that took the world by storm in the summer of 2014. Initiated by the ALS Research Institute, this seemingly simple challenge with a brilliant viral design (participants name / dare their friends or colleagues to get the next ice bucket) has snowballed throughout the world, raising much need cash for ALS drug research.

A negative or stabilising feedback effect occurs when any intervention within the system carries no real effect on its governing patterns. This is because the self-sustaining forces keeping these patterns at bay are so strong that all that energy input just dissipates and goes to waste. Take for example a group of nations caught in an arms race. One state might wish to increase its deterrence by buying a new missile. Yet in response, its neighbours will go on a similar shopping spree. Overall, while each player expanded its military toy box it proved unable to enhance its defence or its sense of deterrence. As each player adapts to the actions of others, the system remains the same.

Negative feedback effects are a challenge when trying to transform a complex pattern, for example energising a depressed economy through quantitive easing, or empowering women in patriarchal societies. The experience of intervention seems akin to pushing on a sponge, once you let go it simply returns to its original form. Yet in other contexts these stubborn stabilising effects can come in useful. In fact, it’s what keeps us alive, from our body temperature to all the chemical reactions that run it, homeostasis regulation keeps us in balance. Similarly, prices in fully competitive markets regulate supply and demand. While working against us when pushing for change, when trying to stabilise newly achieved conditions – for example following a peace agreement, we would need negative feedback effects to develop so to allow new patterns to take hold.

SO WHAT does that mean in terms of creating impact?

Feedback effects help us make sense of the non-linear relations between causes and effects in complex environments. In other words, the lack of direct proportion between input and output, i.e. between actions and outcomes. Huge investments of resources and power might merely make a dent in the systemic patterns under focus, while small interventions might create surprisingly dramatic effects. Yet while uncertain from a strategic perspective they become part of the systemic toolbox.

When hoping to shift a problematic complex patterns the self-sustaining forces creating potential negative feedback effects must be analysed and creatively disrupted; while positive feedback can be harnessed to shift them. Taking advantage of systemic dynamics is key for operational design, but more on that in Building Blocks.