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Views from the Prairie

September 11

Wishful thinking on Complexity

A recent issue of Harvard Business Review focused on "Embracing Complexity". While the analysis is good, it might be wishful thinking to expect most managers to be able to handle it.

Before we look at Complexity, we have to define what that really is. The Santa Fe Institute defines "Complexity" as that boundary of events that are between the Ordered and the Chaotic. Their definition of Complexity is similar to Chaos Theory in Physics where events are not repeatable in the small but do form patterns. As Mark Twain is supposed to have said, "History doesn't repeat itself, but it does rhyme."

The problem is that complexity is not what we expect from the world. We expect the world to act in certain patterns. We understand cause and effect and expect things to work that way and reject other explanations. Similarly, science has rejected explanations that do not fit preconceived ideas of how the world works. Thus, when the people who discovered the Chaos Theory tried to publish their work, it was rejected multiple times. A three year old will complain about perceived unfairness. We reject not only some explanations but also the data that indicates that the explanation might be correct.

A lot of managers run into this problem as they try to manage certain types of projects. For example, a number of software development projects behave quite differently than what the managers expected when the project was started. Instead of a linear progression of activities and results, surprises and overruns are common. Many projects are "complex" instead of complicated and the managers can't handle them.

Many corporations select managers because of their ability to manage orderly processes, but that often means an inability to handle complexity. By nature, corporations are designed around predictability, linear approximation of how things work, and a belief that what is measured is the most important. Corporations exist to make things look like they are ordered. The people who fit well into corporations have the emotional makeup to want things that way.

Thus, if a corporation decided that Complexity was something that needed to be handled, it is likely that the managers currently in the corporation would need to be replaced.

The people who do well with complexity are those who have dealt with it all their lives or have gone through more extreme situations. Thus, corporations may look for people with combat experience to find people who not only know about complexity but may have techniques for dealing with it. When we look at places around the world that have gone through turmoil, we may find future leaders there who know about chaos and how to cope with it.

Our world is getting more chaotic as we built global systems and integrate other cultures and ways of operating into our lives. When we look at the impact of climate changes, we may experience far more unpredictability in the future.

Harder, Stronger, Longer

One of the biggest strategic mistakes companies (and generals) make is to rely on tactics that worked in a prior situation but no longer work because of some change in the environment. These changes can be new technologies, new competitive alliances, changes to the population, or major economic changes.

There have been some spectacular mistakes made in this manner. For example when wars involved hand to hand combat with swords and knives, one winning tactic was to keep a cadre of well trained soldiers out of the battle till towards the end. Then, send them into battle in a tight bunch and let them drive through the enemy lines. This tactic worked quite well for many years till the technology of war changed. Instead of charging into many small bunches of worn out warriors, these people were charging into massed cannon fire and then machine gun fire. So, at Waterloo, the French Cavalry charged again and again into cannon fire that wiped out half the officers. Likewise, at Gettysburg, General Lee sent Pickett's division into a charge where it was destroyed mainly by the artillery.

Many a manager pushes their team by exhorting them to work harder and longer. When work was based on muscle and creating things by hand, that was a winning tactic. This tactic works best with young workers as their bodies respond by gaining muscle and strength. When dealing with creative work, this push can be counter productive. Often, creative work has to be done in spurts - periods of hard push followed by times of slacking off. Often, the most creative ideas come in that "slacking off" time.

Risky World

We often do not realize that a system has switched from a complicated to a Complex system. For example, the US has been connecting the electrical system more and more which makes it Complex instead of complicated. Thus, a simple problem can bring down huge areas of the country.


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