Why We Avoid Complexity

Photo by Kristin Snippe on Unsplash

If there’s one thing any observer would have noticed in the past few years, it’s the way complexity has retreated from(or been pushed out of) the public forum. Interestingly, this comes at the same time as systems thinking and an attempt, at least in rhetoric, to embrace complexity feels as though it has grown in some parts of the business, environmental, and technology world.

So what are the ways in which we have rejected complexity? Why have we done so? Why does it matter? And what can we do about it?

Let’s start piecing together the jigsaw. I don’t want to talk too much about the kind of polarisation behind Brexit and Trump and the so-called culture wars. We all know about that — and it has been covered very well in the Netflix documentary The Social Dilemma.

I want to start instead with the changing culture in government with relation to equality issues. This is laid out starkly in Fight for Fairness, the inauguration paper from Liz Truss as Women and Equalities Minister. One sentence stands out in Truss’ outline of her intended direction for equality: “It will be about individual dignity and humanity.”

This message fits perfectly with a government whose instincts are distinctly libertarian. What makes it so effective is that it also fits with a society that has come to want simple answers to fundamentally complex problems.

Another indicator of the extent of this difficulty with complexity came during a conversation with a friend. I was taking up a new interest (no details to avoid identification), and the friend was horrified. “That’s really inaccessible,” he said. And it transpired what he meant was, “It’s all so interconnected that there’s no real way in. You don’t know where to start.”

Hold that thought. We’ll come back to it. But we can’t go any further without referring to Mr Simple-Building-Blocks himself, Elon Musk, and the guru of the atomist he has popularised, Marcus Aurelius.

Elon Musk, like Marcus Aurelius before him, bases his method for understanding problems on breaking them down into their most fundamental parts and then building from the ground upwards. What’s interesting is that we see something similar in the much-acclaimed “deep practice” method, as found in Ericsson and Pool’s “Peak.” It’s something I’ve adopted personally and found very effective. And at its heart is the same principle — taking a complex process and breaking it down into its constituents, practising them each to the level of mastery and then putting them back together.

But these examples, while seeming to suggest that the answer to complexity is to break it down into simple parts, actually show the opposite.

Because however “hard” or “intricate” space travel or battery technology or boring a tunnel, or making a tennis swing or playing the violin might be — they are discrete, definable procedures. They are very different from the wicked problem nature of many of the world’s existential threats. This may be why when the likes of Elon Musk start commenting on more complex issues they can end up looking somewhat less prescient than random.

So what makes complex problems so much harder to tackle? Why is it they seem to offer “no way in”?

The first reason I want to propose is the lack of obvious causation. We are used to seeing the impact of actions. Hand position can cause a slice in your golf swing. The weight and volume of fuel are intimately related to the ability of a rocket to escape the atmosphere. But it is in the very nature of complex systems that it is almost impossible to trace the causation between any one element of the system and the overall behaviour of the system. Often the best one can hope for is to find some correlation using regression analysis.

This makes it hard to know where to start tweaking our actions practically. But possibly more important for changing public understanding of and response to complex issues, it makes it harder for us to engage with a problem because we cannot sense the connection between any one of our actions and events in the real world — the words we are used to using — effects, outcomes, impacts — become almost meaningless in this context. This is exacerbated by the inability to set milestones.

We are used to seeing progress towards a goal as something we can put on a kanban type spreadsheet. There is a goal towards which we are working with specific actions, whose success we measure using very clear milestones. With complex problems, there are no obvious contributory actions, there can be no clear goals for these blurry actions, and most of the time we don’t even have a clear goal these unclear interrelated actions are working towards. In a world where we live and die by SMART targets, complex problems not only feel unrelatable — they break the fundamental rules of engagement so we are tempted to give up on them as being “out of scope”. And that, of course, is catastrophic.

Further practical issues include a lack of identifiable “ownership” or, even more practically budget. When you don’t which actions have which contribution to which outcomes, how does one person or one team take responsibility for that part of the project? And how does the organization assign resources?

But many of these problems with complexity poit to an even bigger problem. We struggle with complexity because we have designed it out of our notion of what a project should look like. We believe that unertakings are linear, with clear causation and direction, and should be monitored by measurable milestones and outcomes.

Yet in some we we know that “metrics”, measuring particular outcomes, can have disastrous consequences. We see this most clearly in textbook philosophy examples. We could eliminate global deaths from cancer tomorrow, for example. and if we programmed a putative artificial intelligence to pursue that single outcome, it would likely succeed. All it would need to do is to kill everyone today. Then no one would ever die of any disease again. Clearly this is ridiculous, but we see similar things in practice. I wrote a year ago about the problems of wellbeing metrics in higher education, for example.

if we accept that metrics have unintended consequences and that we want to tackle complex problems in part to avoid these, we should also accept that these arguments against tackling complex problems are somehow circular and misplaced — and maybe it’s that circularity that prevents us getting a “way in.”

Does it matter that we can’t set SMART targets? Does it matter that we can’t move tabs steadily across a kanban sheet? Perhaps these things only matter so much because we have already failed to embrace complexity in all its nuance. And perhaps the answer is to forget rules of engagement that were drawn up in qualitatively different contexts.

But the thought of doing this raises an even more fundamental issue. A psychological one, about how we engage with the world around us and the challenges it presents.

I’ve written elsewhere about why it is really hard to get people to take action to build a better future. And in my book Our Dreams Make Different Shapes, I talk at length about the psychological difficulty of engaging with actions to change the world.

In short, for people to be truly engaged with actions to build a better future, the following conditions need to be met:

  • “the future” needs to be defined quite tightly. It must be far enough away that we can see change is needed but similar enough to now that enough people can imagine it;
  • people need to believe that their actions can contribute to the change. This has two elements. They need to be able to feel, viscerally, the connection between action and outcome. And they need to believe that they have access to channels for change — if they have an idea that needs funding, do they have access to funding? If their idea needs disseminating, will they be given a platform? and so on;
  • people need to believe they have the skills to carry out those actions.

And therein lies the problem. The direct causation between action and consequence is not simply about ownership of budget or workstream, or metrics or other practicalities. It is about engagement.

And like the issue of complexity at a practical level, there is a wider conversation that needs to happen — a level of education we need to engage in so that people become comfortable with complexity, so that they can feel ownership of indirect consequences and immeasurable results from their actions. Climate change is a canary in the coalmine for this of course. We need people to take actions in their day to day lives in the belief, and motivated by the desire, that they will have intangible beneficial effects on the other side of the world and in decades’ time.

If we believe this is too much for people to grasp, we should give up now and manage our decline as a species. If we believe it’s possible, we need people to start coming forward and asking for solutions — all and any, from anywhere — of how this kind of mass public conversion in thinking and motivation is possible. And of that I see no sign — our leaders and our academics alike still demonstrate by their narratives and actions that they believe the answers are simple.

If you would like to talk about how I can help you or your organization think about and tackle engagement with complexity, you can email me at rogueinterrobang@gmail.com

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