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Sometimes, complexity is just not fun

Complexity is a defining attribute of society today – in fact, it’s foundational to understanding people, markets, technology, and why “things go wrong”. Unfortunately, school did not equip me to understand complexity or even to recognize it. I learned that right answers exist (in fairness, they do sometimes). I learned that clarity and lack of ambiguity were hallmarks of an education. I learned about cause and effect – not always explicitly, but as an underpinning component to how I was taught. Questions like “why do people kill” in psychology or “why do stock markets fluctuate” quickly moved to reasons: because she was abused as a child…because of monetary policy, etc. Of course the answers weren’t that simplistic, but the tone provided by lecturers and textbooks was one of knowability. My lack of understanding about the nature of complexity at times produced anxiety and internal conflict – when I encountered a situation or topic I could not comprehend, I blamed my knowledge of the subject, rather than the nature of the subject itself. Some subjects or situations are simply not knowable in themselves, but they are knowable by their nature.

Over the last year, I’ve been reading various texts about failures in sensemaking – including 9/11, 7/7, Mumbai, Challenger disaster, economic collapse in 2008, Black Hawk friendly fire in Iraq in 1994, and so on. The information existed that enabled people to prevent the impending disaster (even when a disaster can’t be prevented like Hurricane Katrina, the impact can be minimized through effective action in relation to the nature of the incident). In cases like the Christmas Day bomber, the information was collected…but it wasn’t connected. Recent articles such as Coping with Complexity and Where is Einstein when you need him? demonstrate how the topic of complexity is gaining wide interest at an actionable or application level.

It was hardly surprising, then, to see the conclusion BP reached in its report on the Gulf oil disaster:

A report released by BP today concludes that decisions made by “multiple companies and work teams” contributed to the accident which it says arose from “a complex and interlinked series of mechanical failures, human judgments, engineering design, operational implementation and team interfaces.

Recognizing and responding to complexity is difficult in environments that try to reduce things to rules. A rule (or standardized test) is only effective in static situations. When contexts changes, the elements that comprise complex phenomenon are in a state of play – connections break and form as the environment shifts. In these instances, following a rule can actually exacerbate the situation (can you say “austerity measures in Europe”?). For individuals, complexity is very frustrating. It calls into question the value of knowledge as an entity (in contrast with knowledge as a capacity process). CCK08/09 have been an attempt to do away with this view of knowledge as matching “what I know” to “this situation”. Instead, knowledge in complex settings is a process of negotiation…an interplay of entities…a dance. And being knowledgeable in these settings requires an awareness of process and flow, not of being in possession of “knowledge”. In stable settings, the reverse is more valuable.


  1. Howard wrote:

    I’m not sure exactly how it fits, but your mention of rule and standardized testing brings to mind the trade off that is (I feel) seldom recognized and discussed. In a scientific methodology example (a rule)the more you control for confounding variables, the less relevant the experimental findings are directly applicable to practice where variables roam free. For some purposes I think it is better to choose a method that is less sure (a grading rubric or a qualitative research design), but that is more in-tune with the practice you’re addressing and your purpose for addressing it. In the past we could push things into neat boxes,but now we are being forced to address the complexity that in someways was always there in the background.

    Wednesday, September 8, 2010 at 12:34 pm | Permalink
  2. Dani Porras wrote:

    Nice reflection exercise about complexity. I’m completely agree with the beginning when you talk about: what does school really teach? I really like this sentence: “I learned that right answers exist (in fairness, they do sometimes)” Maybe the complexity of humans requieres learning that life is a tale to gradually tolerate the true reality. ;-)

    Wednesday, September 8, 2010 at 11:52 pm | Permalink