This blog is part of an online learning platform which includes the Pathways to New Community Paradigms Wiki and a number of other Internet based resources to explore what is termed here 'new community paradigms' which are a transformational change brought about by members of a community.

It is intended to offer resources and explore ideas with the potential of purposefully directing the momentum needed for communities to create their own new community paradigms.

It seeks to help those interested in becoming active participants in the governance of their local communities rather than merely passive consumers of government service output. This blog seeks to assist individuals wanting to redefine their role in producing a more direct democratic form of governance by participating both in defining the political body and establishing the policies that will have an impact their community so that new paradigms for their community can be chosen rather than imposed.

Friday, July 26, 2013

Complexity Addressed From On High

In the previous post, Catching Up - Community Engagement, Complexity and Other Issues to Contemplate, a commitment to deal with the concept of complexity more in depth was made.  Complexity has been one of the 800 pound gorillas (there are a number) in the room since this effort began.  

Back in 2011 the case was made by Why is this so hard? It's complicated and it's complex but that's OK with the featured TED video by Eric Berlow: How complexity leads to simplicity, that complexity could be addressed through New Community Paradigms but support for such a claim was thin. 

This post will address the issue of complexity from a more global or bird’s eye perspective, except we are speaking of an abstract concept.  Still, this needs to be done if one wants to make the case that complexity can be addressed not only by institutions or their managers supposedly created to do so but even by the constituents of communities seeking to create their own New Community Paradigms.

What was also recognized in the ‘Why is this so hard?’ post by the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU), as well as continuing to be so by others, and which remains the more defining aspect is that complexity is one of the main if not the main challenge for business in the twenty-first century (pdf).  If this is true for business then it is also true for the public sector.  The difference is that the public sector has more means to cover up or distract attention from the challenges of complexity but more on that later, for now let’s stick with dealing directly with complexity. 

The Catching Up post also spoke of an extensive discussion in the Harvard Business Review LinkedIn group which provided a diversity of perspectives on the role of managers and complexity.  The discussion was based on a 2013 Harvard Business Review Article entitled, Why managers haven’t embraced complexity? by Richard Straub.  The discussion generated 326 comments making this discussion the most commented on within the group by far in recent history and likely going much further back. The topic obviously struck a cord demonstrating what a significant role complexity still has in our world today.  The article fits in a line of past HBR articles based on a similar foundation, Embracing Complexity An Interview with Michael J. Mauboussin by Tim Sullivan and Learning to Live with Complexity by Gökçe Sargut and Rita Gunther McGrath, both back in 2011.  Despite the advice or admonishments provided by those earlier articles, the reaction of the members of the Harvard Business Review LinkedIn group demonstrates that complexity is still a controversial and contentious subject for those that have to face it as a defining factor of their job and career. 

The myriad of comments generated by the HRB LinkedIn discussion contained a diversity of perspectives on complexity which could then be allocated to a variety of different schools of thought as to the best way to address it.  Although these comments were invariably made by professionals in their respective fields, I disagreed with many of the perspectives set forth in the discussion.  It seems necessary to state a position or have a point of view before making any assertions.

At some point, this stops being a purely academic discussion and we start to make a case to set policy that will subsequently have an impact on peoples lives.  Complexity is an abstract subject and seems far removed from the practical daily concerns of most organizations whether private or public. If we have no philosophical or principled basis for addressing it, the result then is that we ignore it completely or at least put off addressing it for today.  This cannot continue if we hope to make a paradigm level change in our communities.  A case can and needs to be made that complexity is not only capable of being addressed but it can be a source of creation and innovation.  Below are nine points based on my own understanding and point-of-view why and to some extent how complexity can be made a viable component of creating New Community Paradigms.

  1. Complexity is an emergent property of systems, whether good or bad, efficient or inefficient, anything that can be considered complex can be considered a system.  Complexity, alone, is neither good or bad.
  2. As an emergent property of systems, the degree of complexity increases with the intrinsic growth of the system, i.e. the number of possible connections increases faster than the number of connected nodes - Metcalfe’s Law, not even raising the consideration that the nodes could act as autonomous agents, or in the case of business and politics as customers and constituents respectively.  Attempting to take complexity out of a system is like expecting to extract all the heat from a fire but leave the flame.
  3. Complexity does not equate to chaos, rather complexity exists at the edge of chaos. This is a factor of Complexity Theory as cited by this SlideShare presentation - Edge of Chaos - second slide.
  4. It has been said that, “Complexity is more difficult in the abstract than in the living.”   Instead of thinking in terms of complexity versus simplicity perhaps it should be coherent complexity (closer to a natural complexity) versus incoherent complexity (manmade). Coherent seems the best word here in my view. The role of management today is to get as close to systems of coherent complexity as possible.  Our institutions attempt to create systems that approximate coherent complexity but are in reality, highly and intricately complicated and move to a more incoherent complexity over time.
  5. Complexity is not separate and distinct from or in opposition to simplicity.  Systems can contain aspects of both complexity and simplicity.  Nature melds aspects of both complexity and simplicity within the same system through coherent complexity.  We often attempt to tame complexity through ostensibly simple processes which instead turn out to be merely simplistic and shallow subsequently growing increasingly complicated and unsustainable.
  6. Complexity should be considered a separate and distinct descriptor of systems as opposed to complicated.  Despite the mainstream dictionary meaning of both words containing the other, we need greater precision in their use. I borrowed my operational use of these terms from others in the post New Community Paradigms Thinking Requires Systems Thinking.  Whether the appearance of complexity within an environment is actually inherent complexity or induced complications within the relevant systems would need to be determined.
  7. That same post put forth an argument that government institutions address complex challenges facing communities by developing complicated processes. Initially, this makes sense as it provides a means of breaking up a complex challenge into manageable steps, providing the means of creating an algorithmic approach, and allocating resources.  It stops working though when the complexities of the larger system, in which the institution exists, outstrips the capacity of the locally created system which becomes more complicated or increasingly incoherent as a complex system. This is made worse if the institutionally created complicated system then develops its own inherent internal hindrances as a means of ensuring its own survival making it even more obtusely complicated, no longer existing for the benefit of those it was supposedly designed to serve.
  8. Man-made complex systems are invariably inadequate attempts to replicate natural evolutionary systems and prone to eventual failure (see John Gall)  through if nothing else some form of information entropy.  Our complaints about complexity are more about our inability to sail with the winds of natural coherent complexity and our expectation that instead it bend to our will.
  9. This means that we would not have a modern market based economy without complexity.
    Drastically decrease the nodes and connections of an economic system and we can return to bartering.  Do a little less so and we can return to the ‘yell at the customer sales approach for increasingly crappy products’ approach.  Complexity is not a hindrance of a market economy, it is a basis for it, providing pathways of innovation.   particularly disruptive innovation. Complexity properly addressed through innovation, particularly disruptive innovation as raised by Christensen,  can add tremendous value.
These are some general observations about complexity within our society. I could finish off with stating my position that 20th century industrial management practices are inadequate in addressing 21st century challenges created by the ever increasing complexity of our world.

The problem is that this post does not really address the original question from the HBR article, "Why haven't managers embraced complexity?" Or anybody else for that matter?  Nobody, in reality, deals with complexity in this idealistic, worldview manner by which all parts and connections are fully visible and the total information of the system is completely knowable and understandable.  This may be the beginning to an argument that complexity can be a pathway to New Community Paradigms but it still needs to be established how to transverse that path. 


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