Embrace Complexity

To some, the very idea of “embrace complexity” is anathema. Or to put it in plainer terms, “them’s fighting words.” Complexity is—for many of us—not our happy place. We dislike it, we find it stressful, and we try very hard to make the whole mess go away as quickly as possible. If that means brushing it under a rug, so be it.

Many of our current challenges are arguably a by-product of this behaviour. We identify a complex problem, we find it uncomfortable, and we find a suitably large rug that will serve our purposes. The problem is that while we’re not looking, the complex problem becomes larger, the rug no longer suffices, and we find ourselves back into the whole cycle of make-it-go-away-now once again.

What this characterizes is profoundly important, but difficult to acknowledge. Our complex problems aren’t going away. They are arguably getting worse. Hoping otherwise is ineffectual and pointless.

The examples of our complex problems are numerous, and on many different scales. Societally, we have the challenges of climate change, systemic racism, populist politics (which are themselves a response to other systemic complexities), wealth inequities, global trade and international relations.

While many of the societal challenges overlay national and municipal contexts, they also create their own complex challenges. Urbanization, increasing densification of cities, loss of rural farmlands and populations are a few. Shifting of economies from resource-based and manufacturing sectors to knowledge-based ones—and the desirability of doing so—are another overlay, as are significant changes in generational populations and accompanying values.

Organizations face their own complex challenges, as well. In part, that involves developing strategies—whether to lead or avoid—in confronting the societal challenges. We also have rapid technological shifts, the digitization of services, and the question of whether and how artificial intelligence and machine learning will play a role. The current strategic obsession with disruption-as-universal-strategy also adds a level of zero-sum market dynamics, as if the rest of life wasn’t cutthroat enough.

What we are left with is a struggle of how to meaningfully respond. Particularly today, with a pandemic as global backdrop to everything I’ve already enumerated, the world feels like an incredibly difficult, uncertain, anxiety-ridden place. It’s no wonder that finding a bigger rug—and a discount-store-blowout-sized stock pile of chips, ice cream and gin—can sound like an incredibly appealing strategy.

In an interview with Bruce Mau during his recent book launch (and if you are enamoured of good books, exceptional design and interesting takes on problem solving, I strongly recommend it), he addresses complexity head-on. Specifically, he observed that we live in a world of complex problems. Resolving them is not the domain of any one profession, discipline or school of thought. Instead, we are going to have to work across traditional boundaries and divisions of labour.

The idea that solving our current problems requires a different level of collaboration and thinking is an incredibly important acknowledgement. It is also not something we are used to, nor is it something that our educational systems have prepared us for. As a society, we value and respect specialization. The deeper you go in any one field, the more respected and authoritative your reputation. At the same time, you are also much further down the hole of that particular concentration, and that much further from the perspectives that daylight and an expansive view provide.

Collaborating across disciplines is not an easy task. This is particularly true in domains of specialized knowledge and formalized education. An intrinsic—and very often explicitly reinforced—hallmark of these formative experiences is the exclusivity and superiority afforded to their graduates. Doctors, lawyers and engineers are easy examples. They are by no means unique, however. A fundamental consequence of specialization is the casting of boundaries between “us” and “them.”

What this creates in group dynamics is a situation where several at the table are firmly entrenched in the opinion that they alone are the smartest ones in the room. Confidence often combines with presumed certainty to pronounce decisions as resolved early, and once made, to brook no questioning of the validity or viability of their determination. This is not an attitude or perspective that tolerates open explorations, admissions of ignorance or a willingness to learn from others. This is problematic, because the essence of cross-disciplinary collaboration demands those very qualities.

The greater complication—and I use that term advisedly—is the presumption that confidence in the face of complexity is even possible. Some of the early work in defining complexity is attributable to Ralph Stacey. His framework of complexity positioned the degree of certainty of a given situation or decision with the degree of agreement around that particularly choice. High certainty and high agreement were the domain of simple problems. Moving away from agreement or certainty (but not too far) led to complicated situations, which require either political lobbying or navigating and testing of approaches to navigate. At the highest levels of uncertainty and disagreement, there is the domain of chaos. And somewhere in between these points is complexity.

A similar framework, that I’ve referenced here before, is the Cynefin model developed by David Snowden. It uses the same terms of simple, complicated, complex and chaotic, although there are differences in how they are interpreted. There is also the domain of disorder, which can be arrived at in a number of ways (and is not necessarily simply a consequence of chaos mismanaged). A discussion of the specific differences between models is well beyond this post.

What is useful in both models is the acknowledgement that both provide that the domain of certainty, where control-oriented and closely managed approaches are appropriate, is very narrow. These circumstances are also the very narrow confines in which “best practices” are actually possible; where there is a simple enough representation of “if this, then that” that will provide an appropriately good answer in all circumstances.

Once we veer beyond the simple into complicated, things get a bit messier. That mess can be cleaned up with expertise (which is the happy place of the highly-educated professional class I alluded to earlier). The disarray can also be ordered and organized with sufficient influence and exercising of political processes to navigate different views and arrive at agreed-upon approaches. All of that requires nuance, adaptation and some situational understanding of what is going on before action is possible (which is a nice way of saying, once again, “it depends.”)

Where there is useful agreement is that once we veer into the world of complexity, things get infinitely more… messy. (I was going to say “complicated,” but we’ve covered off that dimension already). The world of complexity doesn’t have simple answers. It also does not feature cause-and-effect circumstances. While there may be many different actions that are possible, knowing the right—or even the most reasonable—action to take is difficult and quite possibly impossible. The consequence of pulling one or even many levers is not readily discernible, and so we get outcomes somewhat divorced from action. That’s not to say that action isn’t important or even essential, it just means that we can’t trace the influence of this result back to where it came from.

This is the domain that we need to play in if we want to manage the messy problems of today. Individual expertise exercised in isolation won’t cut it, which makes things awkward. Successfully managing in complex circumstances requires shared exploration, collaborative insight, progressive consideration of possible approaches and actions, and a great deal of willingness to make incremental steps with periodic course corrections. It also requires the very real and humbling reality that certain actions will fail colossally but unpredictably, and that this too will form part of the learning experience.

There are a lot of implications here, for organizations, for individuals and for society. While our world is unimaginably complex, there is a disconcerting appetite for simple, clear and confidently presented answers. This is particularly true now. We don’t like messy, we don’t like uncertain, and we are particularly dismissive of caution and conditions. While it might be tempting to confuse confidence for competence, it is incredibly dangerous to do so on any matter of significant consequence.

We need to rethink our expectations in these circumstances. Answers are not going to be clear, timelines are going to be ambivalent and progress is not going to be consistent or linear. Failures will occur, and that needs to be not simply accepted, but also embraced as a valuable source of learning and input. That’s not to say that we deliberately set out to fail, but failure will be a by-product of progress and wanting or insisting otherwise is a fool’s errand.

We also need to think about how we organize in tackling complex circumstances. We think it normal for one area to lead and be in charge. That often falls to the greatest level of expertise (occasionally), influence (frequently) or organizational power (sadly) without consideration of what appropriate leadership in a given situation actually looks like. In the world of the complex there needs to be a sharing of knowledge, perspective, insight, power and direction. That doesn’t come naturally. The degree to which it feels abnormal highlights the degree to which our natural bias is often towards command-and-control approaches to simple problems. Stepping out of that mode of operations feels decidedly weird, experimental and uncertain. Doing so is also very necessary.

We are above all going to need to consider how we decide to take action. For many of the more intractable problems in the world, lack of progress starts and finishes with lack of agreement that there is a problem. While a great deal of that is ideological and rooted in wishful thinking (bringing us back to where we came in), the avoidance of action does not serve us broadly. That it may serve particular and narrow interests is unfortunate, and what very often gets in the way of meaningful action. We need to move past this. We need to get on with the process of tackling the big and the messy. We need to embrace complexity. That’s a big shift in orientation and attitude, and not one that will be easy for many.

There is no simple way to accomplish this. There is no magic wand we can wave, or formula we can devise. Societies will not collectively shift overnight, nor will organizations. Where progress occurs, it will be the product of individuals being willing to take action and building the collective support necessary to do so. Embracing complexity means being willing to try new things, develop new approaches, build new collaborations and take active steps to make things happen, because doing so matters and doing nothing is no longer acceptable.

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