“What is the difference between something complicated and complex anyway?” is a typical question often posed to me during a challenging planning session.
Unbeknownst to my inquirer, they have just invited me to change their world view. I’m no expert in complexity theory, but I know enough to be dangerous.
I reply, “Comparing complicated with the complex is like comparing a Swiss watch with a Frog. You probably could only put one of those back together again”. The difference is the levels of the unknown in between.
What I want my inquirer to take away from this forum is that the process of appreciating complexity is what enables our freedom. And to achieve that, we need to be more aware of AND become more comfortable working with unknowns.
Complexity can range anywhere from simple to chaotic, and everything complicated in between.
To illustrate this, consider a 9-year-old’s birthday party.
In the chaotic system, the 9-year-old invites their entire class over for a house party. Things may start out looking normal but quickly fall apart. The children’s behaviour is entirely random. Nobody seems to be listening. The kids discover drugs and alcohol. Everyone goes on a personal journey of discovery, and the house burns down. In the chaos, nothing appears predictable.
In a complex system, the 9-year-old invites ten friends over. You put them all in the garden, set up games, food, cake, then draw a line in the sand. You look the kids in the eye and say, “Cross that line, you little bastards, and you die”. Most kids have fun; there are two food fights, a bruised knee, and one parental complaint. You can’t predict how things will go, but there are known unknowns. Risk is managed through boundaries and understanding the constraints of the system.
In the simple system, the 9-year-old invites their best friend over. You lock them both in a room with a Frisbee, and they proceed to throw it back and forth for hours. Not much fun, but the outcome of the entities are entirely predictable. The nature of the party is one of ’cause and effect’. Maybe also a parental complaint, but that too would be predictable.
This colourful illustration was inspired by David Snowden, creator of the complexity tool, the ‘Cynefin Framework’. Snowden would argue that we rarely stop to think about the level of complexity we are in currently. It’s in this state of “Disorder”, we feel most comfortable and wish to remain. When things work well, there is little incentive to check if we understand why.
We are only surprised when an unexpected event shifts the context, things break down, and we lose control. We can not change something until we appreciate how it might work and any unknowns within.
Snowden explains that even when we think we know the prevailing context, we haven’t done the work to see a bigger picture. It’s tempting to stay in ‘disorder’ because knowing more may require more work. Knowing less predisposes us to less blame. But, it also limits our freedom to enact change. At scale, this conformity crushes under the weight of its own mediocrity.
Philosopher Erich Fromm would declare that to step out of ‘disorder’ is to step out of “automaton conformity”. You are no longer a small cog in the machine, well fed and well clothed, but instead free to make an impact.
Let’s say you work in an office. You and your colleagues look around and see all the things limiting your creative potential. You respond by campaigning for flatter organisations, independence from bureaucracy, and a budget to try new ideas.
Breaking the chains which limit our freedom is a great rallying cry. It is an exercise in what Fromm would call “Negative Freedom”, or freedom from the things holding us back. A good thing, right? But its only half the story. Without a plan on how to leverage our new freedoms, we risk losing them entirely.
With greater liberty comes not only freedom of choice but also its counterpart — consequence. To quote Kierkegaard, “Anxiety is the dizziness of freedom”. On the one hand, free from the chains of the past but anxious about our next decision. It’s enough to make some people seek a return to conformity. You settle to be dictated today’s tasks rather than take the risk of seeking then yourself.
It is here where tools to work with complexity are valuable. It enables us to use what Fromm called “Positive Freedom”, the freedom to have a positive impact.
It starts by having systems that force us to slow down and pay attention, like a sign warning us about a crazy roundabout. Only then can we appreciate the degree of complexity we are convening on.
Now, you don’t need to fully understand a complicated system to change it. The problem exists in the mismatch between perceived understanding and the thing to understand itself. Your aim should be to know enough to manage the evolutionary potential of the present.
If you look at the Cynefin Framework, it provides instruments and ideas for working within different levels of complexity. Other articles do a better job of explaining it than I could, but the premise of this tool is mostly the following:
Recognising your state of complexity
Setting boundaries if needed
Experimenting to discover what you can influence (safe to fail experiments)
Breaking the complicated into simpler components
And monitoring these simpler components
As we abstract complexity into more specific and better-defined problems, our confidence to influence systems and predict outcomes can only improve.
But this is not the end of the story. You don’t wake up one day and proclaim, “I now understand complexity and am the master of chaos!”. The parameters and entities of anything complicated are always changing. And we often need to recognise that most when its easiest to ignore.
The Philosopher Henri Bergson has a good analogy for this. Picture a sand dune on a windy day. Now imagine THAT SAND DUNE is the universe. For whatever reason, a scientist decides they will empirically quantify precisely what that sand dune is. By the time they are done making their first measurement…the dune has shifted and morphed. It turned into something else completely.
You could be out in that desert for a BILLION YEARS, trying your hardest to measure and pin down empirically what that sand dune is. But you will STILL fail; through no fault of your own. The sand dune is a process, not a static thing that can ever be measured.
This idea would form the basis of what eventually became known as “Process Philosophy”. We should never expect to remain comfortable in our knowledge for long. We should always be anticipating and preparing for the unknown. The process applied should be one of determining change and changing ourselves in kind.
At times it can seem like too much; each piece of information carries a new weight of responsibility. The writer Alan Watts described what I think is the best attitude to confront this, “The more we uncover, the more ignorant we are likely to discover we are — we should be impressed by our level of ignorance”.
You may be comfortable with the unknown, but you need to embrace it entirely to bet on a better future. It’s certainly easier said than done.
What motivates me personally is that although knowing the worst does not liberate me from its consequences, it is preferable to ignorance. What it does is free me from the frustration of attempting the impossible. From it, we can construct the interfaces that facilitate us and others to change things.
Learning to work with complexity enables positive freedom. Our starting question should perpetually be, “Which level of complexity am I in right now?”.
We hear the vibration of a single string in an orchestra; we are aware of but can not grasp the limits of our perceptions of the musical ensemble. We lack the ears to hear it.
— Stanislaw Lem, Science Fiction Writer
If you are interested in learning more about complexity, how to break it down and how to work with it, I think you will find the following resources interesting:
Cynefin framework — A starting point for framing and working with complexity
Process Philosophy (Henri Bergson)
Safe to Fail Experimentation (From the NHS)