The fitness triangle: trade-offs in complex systems

The fitness triangle: trade-offs in complex systems

Complex systems are dynamic, and exist within broader systems that are also dynamic. This means that the effectiveness or "fitness" of a system within a bigger environment will also change over time. By definition, if an organisation ever attains the best possible fitness within an environment, any future internal or external changes will worsen that organisation's performance.

Organisations must therefore choose between three fundamental fitness trade-offs:

  • Performance - Maximise the outputs of a system in the current environment
  • Robustness - Maximise the ability of a system to continue its current configuration, either by "soaking" the impact of changes when they occur, or exerting influence on the external environment to minimise or prevent unwanted changes
  • Resilience - Maximise the speed with which a system can transform to a new, optimum configuration

The colors chosen for each aspect of fitness are quite deliberate. Traditionally, copper (performance) represents energy and vitality; silver (resilience) represents transformation; and gold (robustness) represents longevity.

Much like the iron triangle of project management, an organisation cannot optimise for all aspects of the fitness triangle. For example, a pure focus on performance inevitably comes at the expense of either future adaptability (ie low resilience) or having the capacity to continue with "business as usual" when external or internal factors change (ie low robustness).

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