complexity is complex (and yet we seek the simplistic)


“There is never a wrong time to do the right thing.”


“It is not that a person makes meaning, as much as that the activity of being a person is the activity of meaning-making … the most fundamental thing we do with what happens to us is organize it. We literally make sense.”

Developmental psychologist Robert Kegan


ideas that are the most difficult to validate can feel like the most important ones


Complexity, in business, is in the midst of a weird time. In the attempt to translate complexity-in-theory to complexity-in-practice, a whole bunch of people are turning themselves into pretzels to simplify, uhm, complexity. The intent is to make it understandable and manageable (ability to navigate or as Donella Meadows suggests “dance with the system”), but in doing so there have been a variety of quadrants, some delightful descriptors (see: ‘wicked problems’) and, in general, a bunch of things which actually make complexity even more complex in the minds of people in business as well as in practice.

I continue to believe the rough-ish diagram Stacey placed in “Managing the Unknown” is one of the more practical views of complexity for business.

One of the things I like about it, and have liked, is that it has its own version of an OODA loop. This seems important to me because navigating complexity is less about the decision and more about observing decisions and decide what to do with the effect, or effects, which exist as a consequence of the initial stimulus <other past decisions>. In the past I have called this ‘situational awareness.’ That said. OODA loops WITHIN complex dynamics is how to iteratively navigate complexity without simply reacting. You do something and then manage against that decision because it is not a linear directional world in which a problem leads to an action that leads to a solution. Instead, we live in an infinite looped dynamic world. Each action is based on current conditions, such actions affect future conditions, and changed conditions become the basis for later action.  The system, and systems nested within, are reflections of ceaseless connections and feedback loops (even if they are nonlinear). This makes complexity tricky because you can do something with good intentions, say to resolve a problem, and actually alleviate that problem and, yet, be causing another unseen snowballing problem. By applying pressure <or a resolution> in one place tends to create some equal opposing pressure (or pressures) in another place.

Regardless. While that, generally, sounds complex – because it is – the simple truth is everything is connected and nothing is ever really stagnant. But the complexity folk just don’t seem satisfied with that. We need labels and words and definitions. To that I say we don’t need to be brilliant; we need to find ways of doing useful things.

“If you keep certain creative people in too tight a box, they blow up the box.”

Liz Phair


One of the most interesting books I have read about complexity was not actually about complexity. it was about people and society – The Listening Society by Hanzi Freinacht. Ok. Hanzi Freinacht is a complex guy, complex thinker, and talks about the future of society and humankind (kind of a complex topic).  The reason why I believe Listening Society is about complexity and business is because it is about people. And while we like to talk about systems, algorithms, digital infrastructure, culture, and, well, anything but people, inevitably if you want to navigate complexity you need to get people’s heads screwed on right and get everyone thinking about the right things.  I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out, pragmatically, business is a lot like living life in that for the most part you are just trying to get shit done the best you possibly can. It sounds like a grind and aspects of it really are – but can be a thinking grind. So, despite the fact we speak of the rise of the ‘knowledge worker’ the truth is if a business wants to have some agility it needs thinker/doers (or doer/thinkers) or at least have teams in which there is some equilibrium between needed thinking and needed doing and the grind it out mentality needed to navigate complexity and a complex world.

Which leads me back to Hanzi.

He suggests that each person is a cross section of the self – the depths & dimensions – and the conflict and potential inherent in the interactions with social, economic and cultural fabric – all amped up in a technological world. Freinacht calls this ‘a transpersonal perspective.’ Its not just that we are each a billiard ball that interacts with other people. We co-emerge or ‘intra-act.’  He suggests we have a lived experience as well as a creational experience. We experience and absorb from all experiences and in doing so we, systemically, change. What this means is that society is present within each individual as well as within the relationships one forges with what we call ‘self.’ Here is the uncomfortable suggestion — there is no true individual nor is there any true collective there is simply an evolving interlinked emergent set of ‘transviduals.’ This makes each of us inseparable, in a complete sense, rather than some simplistic unique separate life story. This means each person should be viewed as an open and social process, a whirlwind of participation and cocreation of society.” Society, or social dynamics (which is relevant to the business world), as a whole is then viewed as a self organizing system which creates each of us (transviduals) who, in turn, recreate society. We are all social constructions. We are all, in fact, parts & pieces of one another and affect one another. We consist of many different influences (which makes the idea of individual a constraining idea), roles and perspectives WITHIN a multitude of contexts. In other words, we are complex.

Which leads me to what Ralph Stacy called “bounded instability.” People are inherently unstable <I call them uneven> and forcing consistency, rather than coherence, actually limits possibilities (stability comes at a cost). His thought is to relax the inhibitors and optimize (in a situational equilibrium, not balance) what he calls ‘fit & split’ and what I call coherence.

But lurking within what I just shared is that people systems inherently are driven by stable laws of behavior (boundaries) which actually CREATE specific kinds of instability, yet, this creates some aspect of patterns. It sounds crazy but stick with me here. The tighter the boundaries the broader the instability (fragility). But stable, not constrictive, boundaries create patterns.

“Companions the creator seeks, not corpses, not herds, not believers. Fellow creators the creator seeks – those who write new values on new tablets. Companions the creator seeks, and fellow harvesters; for everything about him is ripe for the harvest.”

Zarathustra (Hanzi Freinacht)

Patterns? Reality is made up of inner landscapes rubbing up against each other. This means reality is emergent and we are not successful by slavishly following ‘laws of’ protocol, but rather our ability to sense make reality and navigate emergent patterns. What this means from a complexity standpoint is that Life, business, any environment, is best felt, not organized (or controlled).

That thought is kinda important because complexity, to the everyday worker, isn’t about chaos or stability or any management guru word, its about competing demands and the tension between meeting status quo demands and opportunistic demands WITHIN time demands.  Reconciling this is tough because most people make it a binary choice and the natural arc of business behavior is status quo because of a pressure to produce consistent and reliable outcomes. I believe it was Dewey who suggested people, in general, tend to formulate our beliefs in terms of “either–or”, between which alternatives we recognize no intermediate possibilities. Just like algorithms, which choose only in X or Y choicemaking, we tend to strive for clarity to such an extent we will make things simplistic, i.e., a highly probable assessment becomes a 100% choice and 100% invested <when probability and choice or not equal in truth>. Circling back to sensing or feeling patterns, this means we need to avoid either/or binary choicemaking so that we can ride patterns rather than control patterns.


structure influences behavior is a central principle underlying systems thinking

complex systems resist behavior change

the active energy in an organization is people

a process is only good, and efficient, as the market is built to serve. if the market changes, the process may still generate positive results, but it will no longer be efficient and will continue to decay in its effectiveness.

Anyway. I am not a big believer in social system design, more in trying to understand systems dynamics, but ignoring the fact that all systems, including social, HAVE a design and therefore can be ‘re-designed’ (in some form or fashion) would be naïve. Systems exist everywhere. Systems influence everything we do.  The idea of a social system implies that relationships between its parts strongly influence human behavior. To put the matter more bluntly, a social system implies that people act partially as cogs in a social and economic machine. In other words, people play roles demanded by pressures of the whole system. This idea is a bit uncomfortable because at its core it suggests people aren’t totally free to make their own decisions. That said. Suffice it to say all social systems have some ‘design’ features (or have actually been designed) which, tying back to Hanzi, means people, as social constructs, are designed by social systems.

Yup. The structure of the system will define behaviors. I say that because one cannot blame individuals for most failures, but rather the system itself. Yet. We tend to highlight the accountability of ‘the individual’ in some fairly unhealthy ways within business. Circling back to Freinacht, the entire idea of individual or collective is outdated in today’s world. Cluetrain Manifesto called it ‘the hyperlinked organization’ and the reality is “I am parts of you, you are parts of me, and the whole is a malleable mix of parts of all of us – even those we interact with outside the internal system within the business.” Business and our little personal circles of existence are simply a system within a system, or of the system, and people are systems in and of themselves. That’s today’s world. I imagine I make that point to suggest gamification (which I dislike anyway) of business tends to seek out ‘individual motivations’ when in reality all gamification does is create less than unifying aspects within an organization (when business, in general, while not seeking unity, should seek unifying systems). Gamification, or many of the silly leadership tactics, are attempts to untangle complexity into manageable units. That’s a less-than-useful approach. The intertwined nature of complexity means one shouldn’t be seeking untangle anything, but rather seek to get them to develop TOGETHER to create new evolutions of the system. It isn’t about shedding things, but rather creating things. My point, I imagine, is complexity does not exist to be solved, but rather developed. That thought, in particular, is counter to what society encourages us to do.


We need to deal with this. Remember earlier I suggested we are social constructs. If we do not deal with it, we, well, stop constructing <and that is bad>. This isn’t some theoretical mumbo jumbo issue I am sharing. We need to deal with it because people will be increasingly squeezed in a complex world. Squeezed? What I mean by that is the world is not going to become any less demanding with regard to ‘results’ or outcomes and the world is not going to become any less complex and overwhelming. In fact. They will both likely become more. Under the pressure of time and demand for ‘do something/decide something’ our behaviors will inevitably arc toward the simplistic on our bad, most overwhelmed, days (and simplicity on a good day). In our inability to navigate the multidimensional abstraction of each moment/situation/event/decision/etc., we will lean in on what we believe is our true ability – intuitive behavior. Uh oh. “Believe” as an ability is a misnomer. In a complex world 99% of us suck at intuitive behavior <heck, most of the time all of our intuition is dubious at best> and actually simply grasp the closest key we can find to unlock the door to get the hell out of the complex hallway we seem stuck in. The truth, the reality, is that even the most time-constrained decisions demand some mental grind. If we don’t, then even at our best, we will always remain a step or two behind not only the world but behind any semblance of a sane world. But here is where it gets, well, bad. As the world becomes increasingly complex and we become increasingly overwhelmed and under increasing pressure to ‘do something’, there will always be someone peddling ‘simplicity’ or some tool/tactic to ease us through that situation. Uhm. Easy does not equal what is best for us <see the endless apps claiming to streamline our interactions with the world only to divert our attention from some pretty important things>. Streamlining is more likely to strip away the important than to strip away the unimportant. We need to expand our abilities in order to expand the space we need to navigate as well as to simply expand space so we stop getting squeezed. And maybe that is the most important point. Look. Complexity has a nasty habit of making us feel like we are being squeezed – even when we are not. Gaining the ability to expand space is actually improving reality and, well, an improved reality is a reality more readily navigated. This can be done and we need to shed the defeatist attitude which arcs our mindsets into the space of being ‘overwhelmed’ versus ‘whelmed’. It is within that space in which we may not completely shed the constraints of complexity, but we can certainly push out on the boundaries to give us some space to breathe a bit. And, well, I imagine that’s the key to navigating complexity – space to breathe. No quadrant, no theory, no management guru, will give you any tool better than space to breathe. Complexity CAN be suffocating so the simple action of breathing is the path to navigation. Ponder.

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Written by Bruce