Here’s a fascinating article from HBR (requires free registration, but don’t worry they won’t spam you – they are Harvard Business Review, after all) http://blogs.hbr.org/2013/10/the-embarrassment-of-complexity/ that posits we are guilty of what us former Drewsters liked to call “complexification.” The article is a little more than a jargonified statement of the blatantly obvious, but it takes a little effort to read and ponder the implications. Fortunately for you, I’ve given it some miniscule effort and will attempt to decomplexify it for you.

 

Point 1 – Things are complex because we make it that way. We approach some things and break them into constituent parts and then make each of these parts inordinately complex so that when it comes time to put them all back together again, it won’t work. Here is another HBR article that deals with Peter Senge’s treatment of complexity: http://blogs.hbr.org/2013/09/our-self-inflicted-complexity/ (Am I making this post too complex?) Senge simplifies complexity by identifying two kinds:

  • Detail Complexity– Systems are complex because they are made up of lots of variables
  • Dynamic Complexity – Systems are complex because of the subtle cause & effect relations among the parts

He then says that our understanding progresses from mystery (where we can’t make sense of the details) to heuristic where we have a general statement to algorithm where we have all the variables understood and calculated. The problem is that when we segment knowledge into domains, all with an algorithmic understanding of what’s in the domain, we lose track of the complexity between domains. This “inter-domain complexity” as Senge calls it is what contributes to our inability to solve problems in the real world that are complex because we have made them that way due to our segmentation.

Point 2 – Dynamic systems operate under non-linear dynamics. What this means is that cause & effect relationships are not simple. Dis-integrated systems have impacts on other systems that may not be obvious and create effects that have unknown and/or misunderstood causes.

Those of us with a blood banking background have experienced on nearly every occasion when we met as a group that as soon as we talked about things we were working on, someone else would pop up with a comment and announce that it had an impact on their area of responsibility. Every. Single. Time. And then someone would have to go back and tell the Process  Owner how their actions were going to have an impact somewhere else. But what about all the stuff we didn’t catch? And so we saw unmanageable complexity proliferate at an alarming rate.

And then it got worse.

The article offers a way out using “Integrative thinking” described in this wiki: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Integrative_thinking which is, in some ways, the exact opposite of traditional problem management. Instead of looking for a single root cause, it considers all the variable as salient and contributing to the problem. Personally, I think the jury is still out on the efficacy of integrative thinking as a panacea. Maybe an approach to certain kinds of problems, but certainly no universal solution. Just take climate change as an example. The climate changed often before humans came on the scene, so we would all agree that climate changes. The debate arises when we ask how much of the present change is due to natural fluctuations and how much is caused by humans. Even more debate arises when we try to “prove” that proposed solutions will be effective. And one of my favorites is that we don’t even have agreement on what an ideal climate is or should be. And the yammering of specialists within their domains does little to dispel the debate. Instead, it only intensifies it. Yay for embarrassing complexity.

So what is the solution? Competent rebels. People who call into question conventional wisdom. But they aren’t just anarchistic naysayers who mistake simple contradiction for reasoned argument like this guy. They are researchers who are able to apply analysis to the facts and come up with answers that are out of the mainstream.

And maybe even correct ones.

At least that is the hope.