embrace the complexity

We live in times awash in simplicity and simple-minded thinking.

But life is not simple. Nor are the challenges and issues facing us all, yet our culture seems to thirst for the false dichotomy of simple answers to complex problems.

We seek the simple. We want simplicity.

Thus, I feel that everyone misses the point.

Simplicity isn’t and nor should it be the goal.

Complexity, whether we like it or not, is the point.

Sure — we argue, emphatically, for simplicity. We have designers espousing it from every pedestal like prophets of a higher calling. We claim we desire it. We tell our product designers that is indeed what we want. We ask why our phones need to be so complicated when it could be as simple as our garage remote controllers?

Yet, we do not wish to give up any of the power, nor flexibility, of those items we have spent arguing are too complex.

If my phone only had one button — physical or otherwise — it certainly would be simple, just like the garage door opener, but it would have the same level of functionality.

Is the piano too complex because it has 88 keys and three pedals? Surely no piece of music uses all of those keys. Should we thus not simplify it?

The cry for simplicity misses the point as much as the demand for the simple.

There is a perfect storm present in many organisations and endeavours where the practices of short-termism, the avoidance of complexity and the demand of brevity has produced a great deal of activity with an ever decreasing correlation of results.

The mantra chanted back is that if it is hard to understand, then it is complex.

Complexity is bad.

There is a Welsh word that signifies the overwhelming chaos of complexity that we, as humans, essentially fear that signifies the multiple factors in our environment and experiences that influence us in ways we can never understand — Cynefin (pronounced ku-nev-in).

We are afraid of Cynefin.

We are afraid of those things we cannot understand.

We are afraid of complexity.

We believe that if we can understand it with ease, then it is simple.

More precisely, we believe that when a thing is simpler, that it,in itself, is more intelligible, more understandable, more accessible.

We like to understand.

Simple is good.

This cultural drift is ominous. If we have so little tolerance for what Michael Leunig calls “the difficult truth,” (see ‘Verity’ in The Prayer Tree) then how can we hope to wrestle with reality?

The very arguments we put forward in defence of this ever constant demand for simplicity utilise reasoning and quotes, which in themselves were considered too complex and have thus been simplified to a point that context and meaning is now skewed.

Albert Einstein is often misattributed to the misquoted line of “if you cannot explain it simply, then you do not understand it.” The original quote was in fact “it should be possible to explain the laws of physics to a barmaid” which was stated in both Einstein: The Life and Times and was originally attributed to Lord Rutherford of Nelson in Einstein, the Man and His Achievement. The Full paragraph from Einstein: The Life and Times the text reads as follows:

To de Broglie, Einstein revealed an instinctive reason for his inability to accept the purely statistical interpretation of wave mechanics. It was a reason which linked him with Rutherford, who used to state that “it should be possible to explain the laws of physics to a barmaid.” Einstein, having a final discussion with de Broglie on the platform of the Gare du Nord in Paris, whence they had traveled from Brussels to attend the Fresnel centenary celebrations, said “that all physical theories, their mathematical expressions apart, ought to lend themselves to so simple a description ‘that even a child could understand them.’

The full paragraph above highlights that Einstein himself was not one to oversimplify either — an admission spelt out by the disclaimer “their mathematical expressions apart”. Some things are simply complex. Period. This view of is further strengthened by an article in Time (Volume 84, Part 1, P89) where Roger Sessions tells us:

In fields of specialized knowledge, we aim to render an account that is plain and simple, yet does no violence to the difficulty of the subject, so that the uninformed reader can understand us while the expert cannot fault us. We try to keep in mind a saying attributed to Einstein — that everything must be made as simple as possible, but not one bit simpler.

Within this last line is the clincher of the essence of the interpretation error and thus the loss of meaning that is often portrayed in the misattributed “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.”

Simplicity and brevity.

These, I have found, to be the enemy of information and understanding. Yet, ironically, it seems, I have been trying to find a way to encapsulate this concept into words of eloquent brevity and simplicity — simultaneously increasing my frustration and paralysing my desire to unravel and elucidate the issue.

As with many things, the eloquent message I sought came upon me out of the blue when I purchased a hardcover bound edition of Brave New World Revisited and lo and behold, there it was in black and white on the opening pages …

“The soul of wit may become the very body of untruth.

However elegant and memorable, brevity can never, in the nature of things, do justice to all the facts of a complex situation.

On such a theme one can be brief only by omission and simplification.

Omission and sim­plification help us to understand — but help us, in many cases, to understand the wrong thing; for our compre­hension may be only of the abbreviator’s neatly formu­lated notions, not of the vast, ramifying reality from which these notions have been so arbitrarily abstracted.”

Indeed, the vast majority of people today rely on (over-)simplified representations of the world to make their decisions and avoid complexity.

And why shouldn’t they?

Is understanding the wrong thing really that large of a problem?


Here’s why: ignoring complexity always carries a cost.

That cost is always carried, though not always by the decision maker who ignores the complex in favour of the simple.

With this in mind, it becomes clear that embracing complexity is not an intellectual option but a pragmatic and ethical imperative.

It is an ethical imperative because decisions taken by people affect the lives of other human beings, even entire communities.

This becomes exponentially true as the direct and indirect influence one wields increases. From landholders to farms to Factories. From community leaders, to corporate boards to politicians.

What is worse, is that by ignoring the consequences of decisions on the direct and indirect stakeholders — especially those with little or no voice — amounts to violence.

We see it everyday — a host of politicians, pundits, talk show hosts, commentators and modern day self-appointed soothsayers who are quick to offer up nonsense — oversimplified solutions to complicated problems.

Problems with illegal immigrants? Build a wall. Turn back the boats.

Problems with schools? Test students frequently and reward schools with higher net scores.

Problems balancing the budget? Borrow. Give tax cuts. Print money.

Problems making the quarter’s results? Lay off workers to save costs.

Therefore, taking complexity into account is, at the very least, a pragmatic imperative — since it not only improves the effectiveness of decisions, but the far reaching effects that ripple forth from them.

Not that it hasn’t always been an issue.

In the 1920s, Marcel Mauss summed up the complexity of social systems in “A sociological assessment of Bolshevism” with this paragraph: A society is a being with a thousand dimensions, a milieu of living and thinking milieux, worked by contradictory currents pulling in every direction that needs a modest policy practiced by a citizen who is wise, thrifty, virtuous, and guardian of the law, especially prudent and fair.

Life is complex.

We have our interactions with other human beings that reminds us of how sloppy and complex it is.

The time has come to broaden the traditional approach to decision making and form a new perspective based on complexity.

We should all be breaking out of our comfort zones and fully and judiciously be embracing complexity.

Today, more than ever, the need to embrace complexity is crucial as advances in science and technology, especially combined with design principles, rapid innovation, transformative business practices, altered industry landscapes, globalization, intricate markets, cultural change, and the increasing knowledge and understanding from the cognitive sciences — are increasingly transforming the world around us.

This transformation is due to the very fact that it is a complex and adaptive system that we are part of. Not just on the macro level of the earth, but also within the microsystems of corporations, communities and even families.

Scientifically, we state that any complex system has three characteristics.

The first is that the system consists of a number of heterogeneous agents. Each of those agents makes decisions about how to behave. Further, those decisions will evolve over time.

The next characteristic is that the agents interact with one another. Each interaction is unique yet builds on previous interactions. Which leads to the next characteristic.

Emergence. In a very real way, the whole becomes greater than the sum of the parts.

The key issue is that whilst looking at the individual parts you can understand the agents, map out the simple interactions and provide a simplified view of the outcome, you can’t really understand the whole system by simply looking at its individual parts.

In the late 1800s rangers at Yellowstone National Park demonstrated this by enrolling the U.S. cavalry to try to improve the game population by hand-feeding elk. As a result, the elk population swelled. Success!

However, the increased elk population started eating aspen trees — the same aspen trees that the beavers were using to build their dams. Beaver dams not only caught the runoff in the spring, but created wetlands and still water pools which allowed trout to spawn.

More elk equaled less trout.

That one simple choice, led to a series of cascading events that were completely unanticipated and could have been disastrous to the ecosystem.

People seek to improve complex adaptive systems, sometimes with disastrous consequences. It doesn’t take a lot of effort to make the leap from elk to farms to business or to the economy.

People really have the best of intentions. But there is no way they can anticipate the ultimate results.

This drive for simplicity is made worse by the destructive relationship it holds with a vestigial evolutionary thinking process that makes humans incredibly good at linking cause and effect.

Ten thousand years ago most cause and effect was pretty clear. And our brains evolved to deal with that.

So, when we see something occurring in a complex system, our mind creates a narrative to explain what happened — even though cause and effect may not be comprehensible in that kind of system. This is why we have a tendency to think that certain causes will lead to particular effects.

Add the demand for simplification and that’s our Yellowstone parable right there.

Just like nature, we need to embrace the complexity. We need to think more like an ant colony and less like a foraging ant.

If you examine the colony on the colony level, forgetting about the individual ants, it appears to have the characteristics of an organism. It’s robust. It’s adaptive. It has a life cycle. But the individual ant is working with local information and local interaction. It has no sense of the global system. And you can’t understand the system by looking at the behavior of individual ants. That’s the essence of a complex adaptive system.

Emergence disguises cause and effect.

Embracing the complexity, looking at the overall emergence — the colony, as it were — allows us to take a bigger view and to be better prepared to think about and make decisions of complexity.

When information is diverse and aggregation and incentives are healthy, you get very good answers to problems.

This is true when we look at our gardens and integrate companion plants, pest management and selective foraging.

It is true when we integrate our farm planning into the water catchment and environmental planning of the region.

It is true when we consider our factories as part of a social environment, reducing and recycling waste to produce energy and improve the neighbourhood.

Social Engineering, Corporate Activities, Enterprise Architecture … the examples are numerous — but the answer remains the same.

We achieve more when we make a concerted effort to not only understand, but embrace the complexity.


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