The Variety Calculus - concepts and methodologies to address increasing complexity

Gordon Niven
22 March 2021

The Variety Calculus was developed by Dr Gordon Niven and Lt Gen Sir David Capewell as an approach to addressing the increasing complexity of military operations and operating environments. It is a synthesis of concepts from cybernetics, complexity theory and systems thinking that seeks to provide a way of thinking about human organisations and purposeful endeavours that can inform how we can develop structures, processes and relationships that are conducive to achieving effective influence in a complex and dynamic world. Although it was originally conceived as an approach to military operations, the ideas are universal and scalable and therefore ought to have wide applicability.

Ashby’s ideas on variety and requisite variety are now well-established tenets of control theory. When applying these to human organisations faced with operating complexity, we can consider that the organisation requires commensurate variety with its situation in order to achieve the influence needed to pursue its purpose effectively. All aspects of understanding, decision making, organisation and action can thus be viewed as a process of ‘variety management’ – amplifying organisational variety and attenuating environmental variety to configure an enterprise that is calibrated to the demands of its task and circumstances.

Perceived variety is a function of the level of abstraction at which a problem is viewed. This concept can be used to build networked organisations that are structured with respect to levels of abstraction and can thus bridge the ‘variety gap’ between the strategic level at which purpose is conceived at the tactical level at which it is delivered.

This presentation will describe in brief the Variety Calculus ideas and how they are being developed into practical methodology that can be applied at an enterprise or process level. It will discuss potential implications for understanding, planning and organisational design that will aid decision-makers in designing and operating effective organisations and processes.

About Gordon Niven

Gordon Niven spent the first 20 years of his working life as a research microbiologist in academia before a career change in 2005 that took him to the Defence Science & Technology Laboratory (Dstl), the S&T branch of the UK Ministry of Defence.

He now works in the Systems Thinking & Consultancy Group providing advice, support and analysis to clients across Defence & Security on a wide range of complex or ‘wicked’ problems. He is particularly interested in key strategic issues currently facing the military in configuring contemporary operations for the increasingly complex and unpredictable operating environment.

Lt. Gen. Sir David Capewell became a ‘Visiting Fellow’ at Dstl following an illustrious career in the Royal Marines and retiring as the UK Chief of Joint Operations. Their original meeting in late 2017 was an experiment to see if Systems Thinking practice could influence experienced senior military officers to challenge contemporary practice and generate alternative approaches. It did.