Ferraris are complicated. Rainforests are complex.

We see in order to move. We move in order to see.

Those words from William Gibson profoundly capture one of the leadership challenges of our time. In order for an organisation to thrive (or a single person for that matter) we need to balance observation with action. When the leaders that we work with take time to observe the world around them, what they see is captured by a single word: complexity. 

In the second part of this blog I will explore three reasons why complexity is such an important topic at this moment. To begin with, however, we are going to spend some time reviewing what I mean by complexity and why it matters. The word complexity has been in management literature since at least the 1990s. However, it is often used as a catchall term to describe things that are hard to learn or understand, complicated or challenging, or require specialist knowledge and experience. None of these do complexity justice. Looked at through a particular lens, complexity asks us to think of problems from new perspectives and generate entirely new kinds of solutions.

 Ferraris are complicated. Rainforests are complex

However, there is one way of thinking about that is at the heart of our biggest leadership challenges. Dave Snowden (complexity thinker and originator of the Cynefin framework) differentiated between complicated challenges and complex ones by contrasting a Ferarri with the Amazon Rainforest.

rainforest waterfall.jpg

Ferraris are complicated machines, but an expert mechanic can take one apart and reassemble it without changing a thing. The car is static, and the whole is the sum of its parts. The rainforest, on the other hand, is in constant flux—a species becomes extinct, weather patterns change, an agricultural project reroutes a water source—and the whole is far more than the sum of its parts.

 Entangled mega-trends

 It is in the relationships between multiple changing and evolving systems that complexity really emerges. This is no better demonstrated than by the inter-connected megatrends of exponential technological growth, climate change, population shifts (both in terms of demographic shifts and physical movement). Their interconnectedness is much more akin to the living systems of a rainforest than the mechanical parts of the Ferrari. Together, these interrelated trends have profound implications, as described by Thomas Friedman in Thank You for Being Late:

 The three largest forces on the planet – technology, globalisation and climate change – are all accelerating at once. As a result, so many aspects of our societies, workplaces and geopolitics are being reshaped and need to be reimagined.

The need for re-imagination

 Common amongst complex challenges is that they have no boundaries: one country making massive strides in environmentally sustainability cannot halt climate change. They also transcend the traditional boundaries of business, government and civil society. They exist across contexts. Governments alone, for example, cannot prepare populations for the future of work. They have no single ‘answer’ or solution and can’t be solved by replicating what worked in the past. Friedman’s use of the word “reimagined” is particularly pertinent: improvement and efficiency themselves are not enough. Lastly, they limit the powers of prediction and analysis limited. In the words of Snowden and Boone again:

The system has a history, and the past is integrated with the present; the elements evolve with one another and with the environment; and evolution is irreversible.

Though a complex system may, in retrospect, appear to be ordered and predictable, hindsight does not lead to foresight because the external conditions and systems constantly change.

Complexity is everywhere

It isn’t just the defining challenges of our time that are complex. A world with global trading relationships, flows of people and products, accelerating technological and climate change, createsmyriad complex problems. Leaders in the public and private sectors are grappling with issues that arise from the interrelationship between these factors. Here are some of the questions that our clients have asked themselves over the past year (with client confidentiality protected, of course):

  1. How do we develop business models to suit technologies that are not yet ubiquitous?

  2. How do we reorient our organisation to a social purpose whilst still succeeding financially

  3. How do we tell a credible story to our young professionals whose long-term future prospects are, at best, ill defined?

  4. How do we balance stability and innovation in an environment undergoing disruption?

Approaches to these kinds of problem are multi-facetted. They involve developing strategic experiments over certainty. They require an admission of uncertainty, an acceptance of not knowing and a willingness to share that with people who ordinarily expect you to “know stuff”. They involve, at their core, a willingness to accept unpredictability, not in a superficial way, but an appreciative one. By appreciative, I mean that this unpredictability is something to be explored and the decisions and experiments that arise from that exploration to be learnt from, rather than being something to fear or fight against.   

Complexity is not new. Nor is the complexity thinking described above. So why is it so important now? What follows is a short exploration of three amongst many reasons.

Humanity’s digital dilemma  

The exponential growth in computing power and, in particular the growing capability of artificial intelligence is creating levels of disruption for which many industries were unprepared and the future of which defies accurate prediction. Many (if not most) organisations feel they are playing catch-up. But really, this is only the technical aspect of the challenge. The complexity is multiplied by the human implications of technology. If nearly 50% of jobs are automatable, how will organisations create work for humans? What will the battle for our attention do to our capacity for deep thinking? How can we enable people to use algorithms to make decisions rather than be used by them? Neuroscientist Adam Gazzaley (writing here) argues that the consequences of a mismatch between our ‘old’ brain and new technologies constitute a growing ‘cognition crisis’. In his words:

 We are seeing accelerating reward cycles associated with intolerance to delayed gratification and sustained attention; excessive information exposure connected with stress, depression, and anxiety (e.g., fear of missing out and being non-productive); and, of course, multitasking has been linked to safety issues (such as texting while driving) and a lack of focus (which impacts our relationships, our studies, and our work).

 There is a complex interplay between the technological, psychological and societal impacts of ubiquitous digital technology. Humanity’s digital dilemma calls for leaders who can balance the needs of their organisations and society more general, who are willing to experiment genuinely and who are willing to explore what they don’t yet know rather than stay in the relative safety of the known. 

A plague of ‘fake simplicity’

 We are witnessing in public life an unwillingness to acknowledge complexity – too often, issues of concern are reduced to slogans and political decisions are sold as ‘solutions’: in the US and UK we could probably repeat these in our sleep: “take back control”; “build a wall”; “lock her up”. But this plague has spread far and wide. Viktor Orban in Hungary demonstrates perfectly what it is like to live in a world without nuance, quoted in the Guardian in 2016 saying “for us migration is not a solution but a problem ... not medicine but a poison, we don’t need it and won’t swallow it”. Whether leaders like him really see the world this simplistically (or just want other people to) is a discussion for another time. What is concerning is the consequence: fake simplicity will never produce solutions to complex challenges. Jair Bolsonaro, the newly elected Brazilian president, is known for his inflammatory rhetoric but his underwhelming performance at the World Economic Forum this week suggests little of substance behind his slogans. If leaders can’t accept or talk about complexity we are destined to fail to rise to the challenges we are presented with. Here is Friedman again, with a warning to his New York Times readers: 

This is what happens to a country that falls for hucksters who think that life can just imitate Twitter — that there are simple answers to hard questions — and that small men can rearrange big complex systems by just erecting a wall and everything will be peachy.

Under-prepared organisations

The organisations that we work with are full of capable, intelligent, creative leaders. However, almost all of them feel frustrated that the balance of their time is spent on the immediate and short-term priorities. Of course there are opportunities for truly strategic conversations and future focus but these are too few and often too short. The kind of thinking that complexity calls for cannot be ‘switched on’ in an instant. The kind of exploration that one needs to do can’t be done between meetings or, worse still, during meetings. The kind of experimentation that needs to be undertaken needs time and resources but all too often gets deprioritised by deadlines and targets. This is not to say that any of what gets in the way is unimportant. It is more that, by sacrificing the biggest challenges for the most immediate ones, leaders lose the opportunity to be disruptors and run the risk of being disrupted.

Gavin Weeks