Get comfortable with complexity

by John Mahaffie on March 10, 2011

Last week I wrote a post about getting comfortable with uncertainty, and helping others do it too. This week, I'd like to turn the focus to complexity

When I was fourteen, my brother Jim and the McCarthy boys and I got hold of an old Briggs & Stratton, 2-stroke, lawn mower engine. We planned to use it to build a hovercraft (this did not work out). In tinkering and fiddling to see if we could get the engine to work, I discovered that there are two adjustment screws: the idle valve and the idle speed adjustment. One screw, I could manage: adjust up or down. But immediately, with two, we had a much more complex situation: the possible adjustment combinations grew exponentially, if I have my math concepts right. I learned something about complex systems, right then and there.

When people are trying to understand change, they can easily fall into the trap of assuming one thing is responsible for what has happened; one force or one incident changed things, like one of the two engine adjustments, up or down.

People want to latch on to the first "cause" they think of, and often assume that it caused the outcome or change. We get in this habit, and our news media reinforces it–so often they boil things down to a simple cause and effect story. But there are always other forces at play, and good foresight means acknowledging that, and trying to understand more about more of the factors involved.

So what to do about this? Some possibilities: 

  • Watch yourself and your colleagues: see if you are inclined to stop when you get to a (single) explanation, as with saying why today's Dow Jones went up or down. This isn't good enough. Keep the discussion going, and figure out more about what is going on. Keep saying, "what else?"
  • Raise awareness. Find stories you can share with colleagues that show why they need to understand the complexity at play, and illustrate how things don't have a single trigger or cause. Best of all are examples from your own organization or your sector, where it's clear that a range of forces and trends are at play
  • Go visual: draw diagrams, showing the multiple causes, effects, and relationships involved in a trend, or change, or issue. Your visual learner colleagues will really get it then

But don't worry, you don't have to become expert in complexity theory, or systems thinking. Just keep asking questions, and thinking, and discussing. You'll like what you get.

And by the way, I never did master the 2-stroke engine. I have a rechargeable electric mower now, with no adjustment screws at all. 

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