Simplifying complexity

smart systemsAs with so many posts I write, this one’s the outcome of interactions I’ve been having with people on Twitter. It all started with Neil Usher’s (@workessence) response to my previous post, where I suggested that we need to “complexify ourselves” – meaning that our skills and capabilities are going to have to be up to the job of dealing with complexity and uncertainty as a normal state of affairs.

Neil said that he wanted to challenge ‘complexify yourself’ and that “as the world gets more complex, we need to simplify it.” I agree with Neil. We need to both attenuate complexity (sunlight is attenuated by dark glasses) and amplify our responses to it.

So for me attenuating means ‘simplifying’ and amplifying means augmenting our capabilities to deal with complexity. That increasingly means co-creating and thinking within the give and take of “complex responsive processes” and all that implies for how we feel about what we do together, particularly the things that act as barriers – negative power dynamics, creative and destructive conflict, having the courage to say what we think, and so on.

Passing the baton

One of the many things I love about reading and writing blog posts is how we riff off each other. We get inspiration from others, who in turn pick up things we’ve said and take them off in new directions. Harold Jarche did that with my Ten things I’ve learned so far and he in turn introduced me to a Ralph Stacey matrix I didn’t know about.

I thanked Harold in a tweet and @chumulu immediately picked up on it, linking to a blog post reporting an online exchange in which Stacey dismisses the value of his Certainty-Agreement Matrix – his thinking has moved on from his early work on the matrix.

Frameworks and models

This spontaneous exchange has got me thinking about the value of frameworks and models, so beloved of MBA curricula all over the world. What’s the value and what are the dangers of using frameworks and matrix diagrams to simplify abstract, complex themes?

I’ll start with what I see as a negative. The first one is something I said in the Twitter exchange with @chumulu – that ‘knowledge’ in a framework can quickly become set-in-stone. Porter’s 5 Forces framework is an example of that. Nilofer Merchant challenges its continuing relevance.

But I’m not as courageous as Nilofer – I can’t be alone in hesitating to disagree in public, although ironically disagreeing with something she said was one of the first things I did manage to say out loud. I digress.

I was always uncomfortable with the Simple and Complicated domains of the Cynefin framework for the same sort of reasons that Stacey articulates. In my mind, all contexts that involve people (and that includes the ‘simple’ or ‘complicated’ domains) are by definition complex. While I voiced my views to people privately, I never had the courage to say so out loud. What if I’m wrong? What if I make a fool of myself? What if I haven’t understood the Cynefin framework? That’s possible.

An advantage

One of the things that sticks in my mind when I was exploring systems thinking some years ago was the widespread criticism of reductionist thinking and how consistently this was linked to a mechanistic view of the world. At least that’s my abiding impression of what I was reading. As the years have gone by, I’ve become more persuaded by an ‘and’ mentality.

The same context can be seen as simultaneously simple and complex, hierarchical and networked, autonomous and integrated – and so on. In fact, research from the turn of the millennium into the characteristics of innovating organisations suggested that one common characteristic was ability to negotiate these ‘dualities’.

The advantages of simplifying complexity is that models and frameworks make our thinking visible to others, who then apply critical thinking and ask questions to reveal the complexities inherent within our simplified representations.

Really big important stuff

I just had a Twitter exchange with Simon Heath (@SimonHeath1) about a venture he’s involved with. He said that he would be ‘winging it’ in an important meeting. I responded that winging it is the only way to go and he replied “especially for the really big important stuff”. That got me thinking that the really big important stuff happens at very small scale.

It happens at the level of one person’s brain. And it happens at the level of the interactions between two people. We are all individually complex, always changing and behaving differently according to how we feel, who we are with and the context of our interactions with other equally complex people.

I was going to say that all complexity in organisations arises from social interactions. That’s not true. The widely-publicised Toyota recalls in 2009 were linked to the increasing complexity and inter-connectedness of technical systems. Expert opinion at the time was that the problem was “not likely a single problem but an alignment of complicated interconnected conditions.”

Nevertheless ordinary day in, day out interactions are immensely complex – and getting more complex as organisations become fragmented and inter-connected, and knowledge more abstract and distributed.

Simplifying complexity

Where does this leave my musings on simplifying complexity? Why, with Karl Weick. Of course (for anyone who regularly reads my posts). The whole of his classic Social Psychology of Organising is about acting and organising within socially dynamic contexts. How to start to make sense of constantly shifting, dynamic mess?

He proposes adopting a minimalist perspective (an example of apparently reductionist thinking) to try to understand complex dynamics. He says:

“Conformity, interdependence, and social pressures are mainstays in any set of concepts about human interaction, and all of the dynamics associated with these processes unfold in the cycles where two or more people hammer out their differences concerning what’s up in the organization and what should be done about it.”

As anyone who has ever spent five minutes in any organisation already knows.

Back to Neil’s contention that as the world gets more complex, we need to simplify it. Yes we do. We can use frameworks, matrix diagrams and models to try to simplify complicated concepts. The danger is that the very neatness and simple representations of complex contexts ignore a key and ever-present source of that complexity – people and the outcomes of what they do together.

It’s essential that we apply critical thinking to models, frameworks, matrix diagrams and all other sorts of simplification, including the high-performance principles I proposed in Carry on thinking. They are offered as a work-in-process – I expect people to assess them critically.

Conceptual frameworks and models intended to represent organisational contexts are incomplete without explicit consideration of the complex behaviours – the really big important stuff – that emerge from cycles of very small scale interactions. Weick suggests looking at what we think might be happening in small groups to give us insights into what could be happening at a larger scale. It’s as good a place to start as any, I think.

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