Complexity Demystified: A guide for practitioners

Complexity Demystified: A guide for practitioners, Triarchy Press, 2011.

First Impressions

  • The title comes close to ‘complexity made simple’, which would be absurd. A favourable interpretation (after Einstein) would be ‘complexity made as straightforward as possible, but no more.’
  • The references look good.
  • The illustrations look appropriate, of suitable quality, quantity and relevance.

Skimming through I gained a good impression of who the book was for and what it had to offer them. This was born out (below).

Summary

Who is it for?

Complexity is here viewed from the viewpoint of a ‘coal face’ practitioner:

  • Dealing with problems that are not amenable to a conventional managerial approach (e.g. set targets, monitor progress against targets, …).
  • Has had some success and shown some insight and aptitude.
  • Is being thwarted by stakeholders (e.g., donors, management) with conventional management view and using conventional ‘tools’, such as accountability against pre-agreed targets.

What is complexity?

Complexity is characterised as a situation where:

  • One can identify potential behaviours and value them, mostly in advance.
  • Unlike simpler situations, one cannot predict what will be the priorities, when: a plan that is a program will fail.
  • One can react to behaviours by suppressing negative behaviours and supporting positive ones: a plan is a valuation, activity is adaptation.

Complexity leads to uncertainty.

Details

Complexity science principles, concepts and techniques

The first two context-settings were well written and informative. This is about academic theory, which we have been warned not to expect too much of; such theory is not [yet?] ‘real-world ready’ – ready to be ‘applied to’ real complex situations – but it does supply some useful conceptual tools.

The approach

In effect commonplace ‘pragmatism’ is not adequate. The notion of pragmatism is adapted. Instead of persisting with one’s view as long as it seems to be adequate, one seeks to use a broad range of cognitive tools to check one’s understanding and look for alternatives, particular looking out for any unanticipated changes as soon as they occur.

The book refers to a ‘community of practice’, which suggests that there is already a community that has identified and is grappling with the problems, but needing some extra hints and tips. The approach seems down to earth and ‘pragmatic’, not challenging ideologies, cultures, values or other deeply held values.

 Case Studies

These were a good range, with those where the authors had been more closely involved being the better for it. I found the one on Ludlow particular insightful, chiming with my own experiences. I am tempted to blog separately on the ‘fuel protests in the UK in 2000’ as I was engaged with some of the team involved at the time, on related issues. But some of the issues raised here seem quite generally important.

Interesting points

  • Carl Sagan is cited to the effect that the left brain deals with detail, the right with context – the ‘bigger’ picture’. In my opinion many organisations focus too readily on the short term, to the exclusion of the long-term, and if they do focus on the long-term they tend to do it ‘by the clock’ with no sense of ‘as required’. Balancing long-term and short-term needs can be the most challenging aspect of interventions.
  • ECCS 09 is made much of. I can vouch for the insightful nature of the practitioners’ workshop that the authors led.
  • I have worked with Patrick, so had prior sight of some of the illustrations. The account is recognizable, but all the better for the insights of ECCS 09 and – possibly – not having to fit with the prejudices of some unsympathetic stakeholders. In a sense, this is the book that we have been lacking.

Related work

Management

  • Leadership agility: A business imperative for a VUCA world.
    Takes a similar view about complexity and how to work with it.
  • The Cynefin Framework.
    Positions complexity between complicated (familiar management techniques work) and chaos (act first). Advocates ‘probe-sense-respond’, which reflects some of the same views as ‘complexity demystified. (The authors have discussed the issues.)..

Conclusions

The book considers all types of complexity, revealing that what is required is a more thoughtful approach to pragmatism than is the norm for familiar situations, together with a range of thought-provoking tools, the practical expediency of some of which I can vouch for. As such it provides 259 pages of good guidance. If it also came to be a common source across many practitioner domains then it could also facilitate cross-domain discussions on complex topics, something that I feel would be most useful. (Currently some excellent practice is being obscured by the use of ‘silo’ languages and tools, inhibiting collaboration and cross-cultural learning.)

The book seems to me to be strongest in giving guidance to practitioners who are taking, or are constrained to take, a phenomenological approach: seeking to make sense of situations before reacting. This type of approach has been the focus of western academic research and much practice for the last few decades, and in some quarters the notion that one might act without being able to justify one’s actions would be anathema. The book gives some new tools which it is hoped will be useful to justify action, but I have a concern that some situations will be stil be novel and that to be effective practitioners may still need to act outside the currently accepted concepts, whatever they are. I would have liked to see the book be more explicit about its scope since:

  • Some practitioners can actually cope quite well with such supposedly chaotic situations. Currently, observers tend not to appreciate this extreme complexity of others’ situations, and so under-value their achievements. This is unfortunate, as, for example:
    • Bleeding edge practitioners might find themselves stymied by managers and other stakeholders who have too limited a concept of ‘accountability’.
    • Many others could learn from such practitioners, or employ their insights.
  • Without an appreciation of the complexity/chaos boundary, practitioners may take on tasks that are too difficult for them or the tools at their disposal, or where they may lose stakeholder engagement through having different notions of what is ‘appropriately pragmatic’.
  • An organisation that had some appreciation of the boundary could facilitate mentoring etc.
  • We could start to identify and develop tools with a broader applicability.

In fact, some of the passages in the book would, I believe, be helpful even in the ‘chaos’ situation. If we had a clearer ‘map’ the guidance on relatively straightforward complexity could be simplified and the key material for that complexity which threatens chaos could be made more of. My attempt at drawing such a distinction is at https://djmarsay.wordpress.com/notes/about-these-posts/work-in-progress/complexity/ .

In practice, novelty is more often found in long-term factors, not least because if we do not prepare for novelty sufficiently in advance, we will be unable to react effectively. While I would never wish to advocate too clean a separation between practice and policy, or between short and long-term considerations, we can perhaps adopt a leaf out of the book and venture some guidance, not to be taken too rigidly. If conventional pragmatism is appropriate at the immediate ‘coal face’ in the short run, then this book is a guide for those practitioners who are taking a step back and considering complex medium term issues, and would usefully inform policy makers in considering the long-run, but does not directly address the full complexities which they face, which are often inherently mysterious when seen from a narrow phenomenological stance. It does not provide guidance tailored for policy makers, and nor does it give practitioners a view of policy issues. But it could provide a much-needed contribution towards spanning what can be a difficult practice / policy divide.

See Also

Some mathematics of complexity, Reasoning in a complex dynamic world

Dave Marsay

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About Dave Marsay
Mathematician with an interest in 'good' reasoning.

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