There is a little treasure of knowledge hidden in a very small phrase that comes more and more often to my mind these days… I would like to share it with you.

In 1956, W. Ross Ashby, an English psychiatrist and a pioneer in cybernetics, stated that “only variety can destroy variety”, meaning that if a system is to be stable the number of states of its control mechanism must be greater than or equal to the number of states in the system being controlled. A few simple examples will unveil the magic of these five words.

If you have a crossroad with very little car traffic, you do not need to take advanced measures to control the flow of cars. As the flow (variety) increases, in order to control it you probably install traffic lights. Add a number of peaks for the rush hours and variety explodes. To control it you must now further install smart feedback-systems that count car passes before the crossroad and optimize traffic lights’ timing. Include an unseen event such as an accident and variety cannot be absorbed by the control mechanisms, so it is absorbed by itself in a failure state and traffic stops!

The same happens for example with police trying to control criminality. If criminals ride motorcycles to escape, policemen must have at least as fast and agile means to pursue them or a network to apprehend them further down the road. As variety in criminality increases, police control-mechanisms are upgraded. Police keeps close track of the internet or uses state-of-the-art satellite tracking devices and so on. At the same time, a judiciary system is upgraded in order to avert crimes from happening by the threat of punishment.

Let’s try and approach our economy this way and see what we can understand from “Ashby’s Law of Requisite Variety”. Take our country as an example and the issue of Tax Evasion, a very hot topic at the moment. Years after years, laws are introduced and then changed and changed again, in order to control tax evasion. Penalties for tax evasion are also becoming more severe. However, the variety of an army of accountants, legal advisors and irresponsible citizen, cannot and will be never matched (or exceeded) by the few minds working on the matter from the side of the Ministry. From simple to pioneering techniques, from cross checking to chip-equipped smart consumption-cards, nothing can ever outsmart the variety produced by a general population willing to evade taxes.

Other forms of mechanisms are required that will reduce variety on the side of tax evasion, rather than control variety a posteriori. These might easily include: a reduction in tax rates, a just spread of tax rates across population layers, a clear and open view on revenue outflows, a war on government corruption, a feedback – “open government” – mechanism on what local communities require to be done with part of this income and immediate actions, educational reform to restore community ties and a proper communication plan to present and support these actions.

It is time to take a step back and look at things in a different perspective. The answers there, we need to approach the problems in a systemic way to see them and understand their interactions and emerging values as a set of actions. If we want success, we must ensure that they are not partially or selectively executed. We need to understand how systems work and build the right mechanisms to control them holistically, as an entity, affecting all of the parameters we can in the best possible way. Above all, we must realize the necessity to welcome change into our lives and study and learn the very basic rules of Systems Thinking, such as the simple but precious Ashby’s “Law of Requisite Variety”.

 Article by Alexander Athanassoulas, Business Partners magazine [February 2011]