What does complexity mean? What do we do about it?

Back in July I wrote a long, slightly rambling and overly philosophical post about chronocentrism. I used the concept of rising complexity to illustrate how chronocentrism promotes sloppy thinking (i.e. we misinterpret present conditions based on today’s alleged uniqueness, so people talk a lot about how we live in a more complex, rapidly-changing world but there’s really no way to objectively measure or verify that claim) but my focus was really on chronocentrism, not complexity.

I want to focus this post on the concept of rising complexity in the present age. Specifically, I want to deal with two big questions:

Question 1: Why do we describe the world as “more complex” or “rapidly changing”?

The fact that the concept permeates our discourse so thoroughly suggests that there is either some truth to it, or there is at least some utility. Let me parse this out into smaller questions and offer some answers.

A. Is this actually a true description of the world? No. The world has just as much stuff in it as before, and events still occur one second at a time. As I mentioned in my prior post, I don’t know what measure could convincingly demonstrate rising complexity or increasing pace of change. Anything perception/survey-based (such as the CEO survey I mentioned in my prior post) risks being culturally-biased and chronocentric. I want numbers before I’ll be satisfied.

The most common responses to my “show me numbers” demand is a technology adoption curve. For example, see the chart below from a NYT article. As another blog points out, this chart is missing the original adoption of the TV, which shows up as an incredibly steep curve in the second graphic. Leaving it out bolsters the case for the somewhat misleading headline. (H/T to Stuart Staniford at Early Warning for both graphics.)

Technology adoption with misleading headline - from NYT article

Technology adoption

Technology adoption with historical events - Click for larger version

Whichever graph you prefer, they both fail to compare like-with-like. Wouldn’t we expect the cell phone to spread more quickly than the refrigerator? A cell phone is relatively cheap and disposable compared to the massive capital investment of a fridge. So it’s unsurprising that many people I met in Uganda and Kenya had cell phones but no electric appliances or running water in their homes. Furthermore, the introduction of the cell phone in the developed world only required the introduction of half a technology, because the land telephone system already existed. Other recent examples similarly build on prior technologies: the internet required telephones and home computers, VCRs required TVs, etc.

If the measure isn’t technology penetration, I don’t know what it would be. That leads me to reject the possibility that the concept is anything real.

2. Are “complexity” and “change” useful as buzzwords? Yes. The idea of rising complexity gets thrown around so much that it certainly qualifies for buzzword status. People mention it because it’s the thing to mention. And let’s face it, buzzwords serve a real function as linguistic gatekeepers: they signal who is in your circle, and who is paying attention to the trends.

But if that’s the only function of this concept, then it’s not much more useful than MBA jargon like “touch base” or “incentivize” (terms I confess to using regularly). Such phrases are just short-hand. They don’t actually represent a different way of thinking about the world.

If there’s any substance to the concept of rising complexity (any “there there” as the MBAs would say), it must be as something more than a buzzword.

3. Is it useful to describe the world as being complex? Yes! But why? Describing the world as complex is useful because we now have the tools to deal with that complexity. We perceive the world to be more complex because we now have the ability to understand and manipulate the complexity that’s always been there. That’s why I like the description of complexity theory as providing “a set of lenses with which to look at the world” (in the words of Ben Ramalingam at Aid on the Edge of Chaos). The world hasn’t changed. We have.

I distinguish this question from #1 above because I think we should shine our spotlight on the analytical and programmatic tools that are now available, rather than on any changes in the world. The difference between the two can be seen most clearly in development efforts that target less technologically advanced areas. For example, farmers in rural Uganda are not experiencing a more complex or rapidly changing world than they did a few decades ago (despite the penetration of cell phones in those areas). Their lives have always been complex: variables such as education levels, health outcomes, provision of public goods, or agricultural productivity are all interrelated in uncertain ways with feedback loops tying them together. (See Wanderlust on “Embracing the Chaotic” for more on what characterizes complex systems.) What has changed is that very smart people now seek to understand these complexities through techniques like multivariate regression and instrumental variables, facilitated by improved data collection and software. They are also testing tools to influence these complexities, e.g. through randomized controlled trials of development interventions.

In a sense, I want to make rising complexity about empowerment rather than confusion. If I’m harsh on the buzzword nature of rising complexity (#2), it’s because it leads us to think in terms of actual changes in the world (#1) rather than our ability to influence the world (#3). I think this detracts from the difficult task ahead. Which brings me to…

Question 2: What do we do about it?

Recognizing that we now have the tools to better understand and grapple with the complexity of the world, we must set ourselves to the difficult task of re-thinking causality. The Cynefin framework is a promising model (again, see Wanderlust on “Embracing the Chaotic” for more). Things get even trickier when we try to (as the MBAs might say) operationalize and organizationalize the new concepts.

Owen Barder got into this issue with a recent post on how aid agencies will be managed in the future.* He commented on a WSJ article titled “The End of Management” and drew a few lessons for public service. The article described the increasing need for businesses to innovate in this new world, and how that need is driving new management practices. The practices described sound pretty familiar: flatter, less hierarchical organizations; more autonomy and decision-making authority for workers; crowdsourcing; feedback loops; etc. The examples are familiar too: Google’s policy of letting engineers work on whatever they want 20% of the time; SAS Institute’s incredible commitment to employee benefits; and, at the extreme, Wikipedia. The article seemed to argue that these practices will be minimum requirements for corporate survival in the coming century.

In commenting on the article, Owen noted that public agencies don’t face the same market pressures as corporations, but that some pressures will still force change. I think he’s right about that. And even without increasing pressure on public agencies, I think ideas and practices tend to seep from one sector to another.

Along the similar lines, Ben Ramalingam recently described “complex adaptive leaders” — focusing more on leadership qualities than on organizational structure/practices. Such leaders: 1) “disrupt existing patterns in organizational behaviour by creating and highlighting conflicts”; 2) “encourage novelty by actively looking and promoting innovation”; and 3) “act as ‘sensemakers’, helping to interpret rather than ‘forge’ or ‘drive’ change.” He drew some obvious contrasts between complex adaptive leadership and the traditional concept of leadership, with strong parallels to the WSJ article that Owen cited. Ben called this the “aid leadership paradox” — that is, leadership in complex settings requires giving up our conventional ideas of leadership. However, if our ability to deal with complexity is rising across the board, then this isn’t really a paradox and it isn’t limited to aid. Leadership/management must always evolve to match the types of organizations and functions they serve. This is simply how leadership will evolve in the future.

Hopefully some organizations and leaders are starting to make better use of complexity thinking in their work. In addition to the internal management challenges, any such organization would also face external incentives (fundraising, media relations, etc.) that push them toward narratives of simple causality. I haven’t got answers for any of these issues, but it will be interesting to see how this conversation develops.

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* Oddly, the post showed up in my Google Reader feed on August 22, but I can’t find it on his actual blog. Weird. Will update with a link if I track it down.

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