Let’s just clear the air, as we get started: most of us are not fans of complexity.
There are very good reasons for that, of course. Complex situations are messy, difficult, and awkward. They don’t lend themselves to easy, neat solutions where everything comes together and gets tied up with a nice, neat little bow. Solutions are bulbous and misshapen, held together with twine, with holes and gaps and stuffing wodging out the side that we keep trying to poke back in, like a particularly recalcitrant sandwich with too much mayo.
There are some of us who are prone to be attracted to complex challenges in a work setting, of course. Achievement-oriented, type-A high-performers attracted to shiny new opportunities have an annoying tendency to speak of these things as exciting and just the kind of fuel to motivate their creative and organizational energies. (I know this, because I am one). Being brutally candid, however, part of the reason that these situations appeal is that they are external and at a remove; there is a pretence of objectivity and distance that makes the challenge fun and the overwhelm not quite so whelming.
Once the complexity becomes personal—when it lands in your life, your living room or your lap—it isn’t necessarily as much enjoyable. Stress and anxiety ratchet up. Consequences become significant. Options recede. Perspectives become less coherent, problems open up on many fronts, connections become less tenuous and actions can feel frustratingly inadequate and inconsequential. All of that feeds a vicious cycle of increased stress, disorder, difficulty and dilemma.
This is how complexity always feels from the inside. The challenge is how to remove ourselves from the immediacy of the chaos, sometimes physically, frequently emotionally and almost always intellectually. Navigating complexity requires having your wits about you. You aren’t going to be helpful to anyone if you are swamped, overwhelmed and incapable of processing what is going on around you.
Easier said than done, of course. Detachment and distance sound great in theory, but they can be awfully tricky to actually get to in reality. The closer you are to the consequences, the progressively more challenging it becomes. Solutions become scarcer, perspective becomes problematic and anxiety becomes astronomical.
The human response to all of this is to attempt to assert control over what is going on. Control is our happy place. It gives us a sense of confidence and a perception of competence. Feeling in control is an essential ingredient of being able to approach situations with a positive stance, where there is a sense that you will prevail and be successful.
While attempting to control the situation is a natural response, however, it isn’t necessarily an effective one. In situations of complexity, it is in fact virtually guaranteed to be ineffective. The essential problem is that you are attempting to assert structure and impose solutions on a situation that you don’t understand. Control only works when there is a clear relationship of cause and effect: to attain this result, take this action, push this button or pull this lever. A hallmark of complexity is that there is no cause and effect visible; sometimes, it’s not even there.
To illustrate what I’m talking about, an example will help. While it is a well-trodden example, that means that it also offers the benefit of widespread familiarity, so I hope you’ll indulge me as I mention Apollo 13. The scene I’m referencing is not the one you immediately think of though (with a table groaning under all manner of detritus, where the imperative is that, “we need to make this fit into the hole for this using nothing but that.”) Dramatic as this was, it was a well-defined problem with clear line of sight as to what success looked like.
The complex problem was a different one, fundamental to the success of the mission, but harder to make look like good drama. The command module had been shut down to save oxygen and power, vital for the astronauts to re-enter the earth’s atmosphere if they were to successfully return. The challenge that needed to be solved was how to do a cold start of the command module (something that had never been considered or imagined) within power and time pressures that infinitely complicated the situation.
What resulted was a complicated and repetitive effort to figure out the precise sequence of startup actions that would re-power the command module within available constraints. In the movie, we saw attempt after attempt fail. This is what trying to manage complexity looks like. You are guessing at interactions and interdependencies that can’t be clearly discerned. Actions that produced one result in a particular scenario produced quite different results once other factors changed. The upshot was a lot of guesswork, trial, error, frustration, repetition and probably any number of choice expletives before they found a solution.
This is what navigating through complexity looks like in real life. It isn’t simple cause and effect. It isn’t about asserting control. It is cautiously feeling your way through an unknown and not-fully-knowable situation, and doing what you can to find a pathway that works. You can’t know how things are going to play out in advance. You need to take the best action that you can, see how that works and continue to respond from there.
There is a risk that this might appear cryptic and abstract, so another example might actually help here. Going back to my exercise in notetaking, one of the challenging perspectives that I had in exploring Luhmann’s zettelkasten or slip-box system was the sheer, bottom-up nature of how it was built. There was structure within, but the system didn’t lead with structure and didn’t try to impose one. Meaning emerged out of the relating and sequence of ideas as stored slips within the box. There were defined entry points in that were reflected by specific topic cards, but the system was mostly designed to deliberately let you stumble around.
Starting something like that, then, becomes an intimidating undertaking. At his death, Luhmann’s zettelkasten had more than 90,000 slips of paper, across two separate systems. Ninety thousand instances of gently structured anything is enough to create panic and anxiety. The massive temptation when starting something like this goes right back to first impulses: to try to impose a structure, to pre-define categories and topics, to build an organizing structure upon which you can create notes of meaning and interest.
This is exactly backwards, and flies in the face of the intention and value of a bottom-up, evolving system of exploratory knowledge. The correct approach is to not impose structure, but allow an organizing framework to emerge. Start taking notes, and when you have a few dozen (or a couple of hundred) take stock of what is appearing, Sort and explore and connect and evaluate, and see how they relate to each other. Start sequencing them in a way that makes sense organically, and continue to build from there.
Down the road, when you’ve lived with it for a while, step back again. Evaluate and question whether you are continuing to build and evolve meaningful structure. Evolve and reconfigure again, if need be.
I genuinely think that this is what happened for Luhmann as he evolved his zettelkasten system. His first set of notes was only about 30,000 cards, but organized over 106 high level topics. His second set grew to more than 60,000 notes, but were organized across only eleven parent index cards. In that, I strongly suspect he found the right balance for unstructured exploration and meaningful order.
So it is with complex situations of all sorts. You need to be willing to start doing something, and see where it goes. Moreover, you need to be willing to start doing something accepting that it might be wrong, or imperfect or completely fruitless. You need to be comfortable pushing away from shore without a map, a clear plan of action or absolute certainty on how things are going to play out. You need to be comfortable with that.
None of this is to say just do anything, and hope for the best (or do nothing, because it’s all pointless anyway). Action comes with educated judgement about what seems most appropriate (being as informed as possible given the circumstances). Depending on the situation, that might still feel like a wildly uncertain guess. In situations of high complexity, where there is no precedent and nothing that even closely resembles reasonable practice, that is the best you are going to be able to manage.
That is also coupled with attentive focus, and the recognition, willingness and ability to course correct over time. You will act, you will observe, you will learn, and you will adjust. Some of those adjustments will be minor. Others will be huge. Some discoveries will be the disillusionment that what you thought was a reasonable approach was completely erroneous. The good news is that you know that now, and can do something different (and the worst thing you can do is double down and persevere, because you’ve already sunk so much effort and time on this path).
That means being nimble, it means being flexible and it means being prepared to realize—and admit—that you are wrong. It means watching and anticipating and being vigilant about the actions you take, so that you can recognize when they are fruitful and when they are not. It means having alternative approaches at the ready. It also means being able to create new ones on the fly, when none of the prepared ones seem right, reasonable or appropriate.
Complexity is manageable. It is manageable, in the sense that there are strategies you can employ to navigate through it with reasonable opportunities for success, knowing that doing so will occasionally involve meandering, course correction and tangential shifts. It is not controllable, though, in the ways that we usually think about managing. You are testing for relationships and consequences, knowing that—like the Apollo 13 startup scenario—you will never fully grasp how they work, but you will start to intuit what is possible and what moves you in a positive direction.
The way forward is to dive in. See what happens. Don’t fight it. Don’t impose artificial structure. Don’t pretend that you are in charge. Go with it, influence what you can, experiment with what is possible, observe what happens, and keep course correcting as you go. In the words of Robert Frost, “The only way out is through.”