Countless articles and posts on complexity all over the place – it seems, that everything is complex or is getting even more complex…is there something that remains just complicated? Just saying…

What’s the main message you take away from most of these articles? Basically, it’s how to reduce complexity. That’s it. But is that really a creative approach to master today’s challenges? And, is it actually possible, to reduce complexity? If so, in which cases?

Do you know what I admire the most about the Dalai Lama? His childlike curiosity, happiness and playfulness, his humor when it comes to complicated and complex challenges and questions. Playfulness, playful thinking starts with questioning, so…

Why do we always think in one direction? How to reduce complexity? For me, it sounds like cutting costs. It’s what we are doing when we have no other idea, right? Reducing complexity doesn’t sound like being in a playful, creative environment, where ideas and thoughts are flowing to be put into innovative, unique solutions to create value for customers, to help others?

Why is there almost nobody out there who says „I love complexity“, „I see so many opportunities in my complex world – what a gift, that I can play with all these dimensions, create new opportunities in all areas of my life and choose how to transform and how to lead differently“.
I’m one of these rare persons…. I hope, others will jump on the bandwagon and admit the same!
Yes, I’m absolutely happy with my complex life, and I’m happy that it’s much more complex than five years ago. I’m absolutely grateful for everything I’m learning, enjoying, experiencing. Rainbows and sun shines. All that’s part of my journey. And that’s a pretty complex one 😉

First, let’s define* what I mean with „complex“ and „complicated“, because there are fundamental differences.

That’s, when we have to deal with multiple dimensions, many diverse and autonomous, but interrelated and interdependent components that are linked to each other, through many interconnections. There is no single rule how to describe a complex system, and the outcome has always to be defined. The different characteristics cannot be reduced to one level of description. Also important for complex systems – the small degree of predictability due to the constantly changing environment. Measuring progress in a complex environment is a challenge, because not only the elements are changing, also the environment itself. So, defining several check points that cover many dimensions could be helpful, if we want to measure progress.

That’s when you can operate in a sequenced way with step-by-step, well defined and optimized processes, that run very smoothly to achieve defined outputs. Work in a complicated system is often highly tailored and gets delegated to different units. Additionally, sophisticated planning procedures are part of a complicated system, because they can predict forecasts. Measuring progress is pretty easy, because here we have a direct link between cause and effect.

Now, we need bit more color on the pure theory:

Complicated – that’s the final assembly line of a car manufacturer. Every detail is planned, the bill of material for every single car is calculated with all the specific modules and components that are delivered just-in-sequence, car by car. The predictability of such a system is excellent, you will get the outputs that were planned. There are different planning levels, weekly, daily, from shift to shift, for every specific car. The different layers are organized pretty well, often in a hierarchical structure. In such an environment, the most sophisticated math as well as state-of-the-art engineering and production expertise are used to map out detailed process flow charts. Then, these processes can be conducted as efficient as possible.
Thinking is focused on how to design and how to optimize the processes to get the desired outputs in the most efficient way and then, it’s about following the process.

Complicated – that’s a cockpit of an aircraft. Many dimensions, many different displays to be aligned, but pretty predictable. The output is also predictable. The pilots can calculate precisely how long it will take to fly e.g. from Frankfurt to San Francisco. Processes are pretty well-defined, the related processes with the tower and with the cabin are pretty well aligned and strongly connected. Also, in critical situations, decision-making is defined on a very detailed level.

Can we reduce something in a complicated system? Yes, everything that’s not adding value will be removed. Car manufacturers are again a great example. You won’t find anything along their assembly lines, that’s not adding value to the expected output – cars. They are optimizing permanently.

Complex is different, perfectly explained by my friend and leadership guru Walter H Groth „an environment of which you neither know all of the variables at any given time, nor all of the possible interactions of such variables. Situations in complex environments have the inherent faculty of transforming, since each variable, therefore also you, can potentially change everything. The sequence of events is incoherent, yet following certain principles. Hence, critical thinking, thinking for yourself the scientific way … knowing how to think is indispensable.“

What’s a perfect example? In my opinion, „The European Union Explained“ is just brilliant.
Take these five minutes to watch this video, you will enjoy it – promised! You could also think about the health care system in your country. Not a single one which is not pretty complex. I think I stop to add other examples here…
Those complex systems aren’t based on a single process, many processes are changing and are connected at the same time. Keeping balance in a complex system is always a main challenge. The outcomes are not defined beforehand in all the details, but the journey how to get there. Then, the outcomes have to be defined in detail with many stakeholders over time, along the journey. The challenge is that there are many processes involved and sometimes, they seem to disturb each other. Especially in a complex system that was created by human beings. Sometimes, people who assume to be in a complicated environment, just connected complicated processes, but in a complex environment – and the perception is then, that the left hand doesn’t know what the right hand is doing. Knowing HOW to think and critical thinking is really essential and will make the difference regarding the functionality of the complex system and regarding the expected outcomes.

Can we reduce complexity? Sometimes, it depends on the system. In an aircraft, probably not, that’s already well optimized. In the European Union, why not. You can decide what to cut off, nations, central banks, and so on. But the impact of doing so isn’t very predictable, due to the character of a complex system. So, „reducing complexity“ has to be well thought through – critical thinking, here we go again!

Enough ruminating for today – the first step is done. We have defined what we are talking about and we have put some color on it – hopefully in a playful way!

In the second part of this little series, we will discuss management and leadership and what does it mean in complicated and in complex situations in order to drive transformation towards the 21st century – Play, Create, Lead and Transform!

Stay tuned!

*For all bloggers not mentioned so far – thank you very much for your inspiration:

Learning for sustainability
Mike MacDonagh’s Blog
LarryCuban On Schoolrefrom And Classroom Practice