I decided not to share this (it’s complex)


Ahoy my dear Coterie. Apologies for the slight lapse—the year kicked off with a hefty dose of gloom, what with the raging fires here in Australia. And our absurd politics.

What I am about to share with you here is an article I spent a while working on, but ultimately decided not to publish on my website or on the social medias. You can listen to this private podcast for a bit of pretext/context/subtext before reading the text below, but in a nutshell: I was far too bitter. In this The Year of the Bard I am making a conscious effort to show up in a way that brings more enchantment to the world. The darkness is still there, don’t worry. But I have come to suspect it will serve better when shared here, with those who understand me a little better.

(Or maybe that’s just the story I tell myself).

In any event, enjoy the following. It’s riddled with snide (a genuine failing). But I hope you can forgive me, and that you may find some useful perspective herein.

tl;dr – Let’s try not conflate ‘complex’ and ‘complicated’.

Complexity is not the enemy

—it’s a reality we need to navigate.

Read this if you want to get savvier with complexity, and to better detect ‘pseudo-complexity’ attempts to sell you dud ‘solutions’ that don’t work, cost you more, and hold us back. (ง'̀-'́)ง

I have a close friend with whom I share a long-running and spirited dialogue in a private messenger channel, all pertaining to the meta-matters of the world. We share similar values, but approach things from very different philosophical dispositions. Sometimes it gets quite heated (like a sauna). And sometimes we deliberately flare each others allergies. But overall it’s quite a jolly sparring that serves to simultaneously make me more uncertain whilst deepening my understanding of things. Or at least: the illusion of such. It’s almost dialectic.

Recently he asked me the following:—

“Okay so, you have a complexity boner, right? What am I missing when I read this?”

Subtext: my friend is understandably suspicious of my love of complexity, and is a champion for simplicity. I suspect he believes I wouldn’t agree with the article—and he’s right.

This is the kind of thing that lights me up. Not the ‘boner’ bit* but complexity. A most sublime and infinitely wondrous concept, inherently linked to life, evolution and the universe.

* Though to be fair to my friend: the crudeness of this term artfully contrasts with ‘complexity’, so: well done.

Just think about it: [as far as we know] from the beginning of the universe and time itself—the ‘Big Bang’, as it were—we have moved from ‘lower’ to ‘higher’ orders of complexity. From hydrogen and then other elements to molecules and eventually to single-celled life—right through to conscious minds and living ecosystems. It’s all inherently interlinked, inter-contingent, open-ended, fractal and infinitely wondrous. Complexity beckons us to marvel at the sheer ‘luck’ of being alive and conscious enough to observe—in a very limited and incredibly humbling way—the unfurling grandeur of the cosmos. To realise that this ‘big bang’ is still happening—that ‘free will’ and ‘the self’ are likely exaggerated illusions—and we are each and all a part of its continued unfurling into ever-richer complexity.*

* See The Metamodern View of Reality for more.

So yes, complexity does arouse me.

It awakens me to a different order of consideration and awareness.

When someone evokes the term ‘complexity’, it signals to me an expansive quality to their thinking. It suggests that they are considering things from multiple perspectives—whilst employing a kind of epistemological humility paired with reflexivity. Those attuned to complexity, in my experience, usually display deep curiosity, empathy and consideration. There’s a degree of openness to them; a sensitivity for context and a playful respect for tension and paradox. In a world full of bluster and conviction, this is a welcome relief.

But then I often realise: oh. They mean ‘complicated’. They’re saying the word ‘complex’, but they’ve conflated it to mean ‘complicated’. Their approach is linear, reductive, simplistic and myopic. And they think they have ‘the’ answer. They maintain that ‘a’ ‘real’ ‘solution’ can be found. Hohoho, well. This is now a very different conversation.

Dictionaries don’t help.

Complexity is often perceived as the antonym to simplicity and a synonym to ‘complicated’. At its most reduced, we end up with scenarios where ‘complexity = bad, simplicity = good’. At its worst, we hear talk of needing to ‘kill complexity’. This is a hellishly misleading misnomer.*

* It starts with corporate monocultures optimised for efficiency. But taken to its logical conclusion, ‘killing complexity’ would equate to the elimination of all life and matter in the universe.

So—before we dive into the article itself—let’s be sure we know what we mean when we say what we say.* Establishing a shared sense of ‘meaning’ is one of the swifter ways to better understand each other.°

* And though my friend asks me to point out what he himself is missing—the reality is that’s too complex to possibly know. I myself am no doubt missing many pertinent things. The best I can do is hallucinate and guess as to things that might be missed. So, for the sake of this article, I answer not in direct response to my friend but to a ‘general audience’. As in: here’s what, in my experience, many people miss when it comes to complexity.
° Many disagreements, I suspect, can be sorted simply by clarifying our semantics (and the intentionality behind them)—that is: listening, and seeking to understand.

As an aside—I feel particularly motivated to explore this facet of ‘complexity’, as I see the landscape flooded with consulting firms offering ‘solutions to eliminate complexity’ and similar-such rubbish. I also see consulting firms that offer linear and reductive thinking dressed as ‘complexity thinking’. This pseudo-complexity apes the language—but not the spirit, ways and habits of mind that come with complexity thinking. The authors of the paper Fostering Complexity Thinking in Action Research for Change in Social–Ecological Systems explain this aptly:

“They display all the distinctly reductionist habits of expecting to come to ‘know’ the problem and objectively find the ‘right’ solution by dividing the problem into discrete elements to be tackled by experts who ‘know’ how to do it. Any range of solutions can be tried because, if they go wrong, they can be reversed with little consequence for the system. They will expect, consciously or unconsciously, that once the ‘real’ solution is found, the problem will go away and they will now have an ‘evidence-based’ decision that can be applied again should ‘the’ problem emerge again.”

I fear a lot of consulting firms fall into this trap (and also perpetuate it).

So: what do we mean when we say ‘complexity’?

Wikipedia suggests that “Complexity characterises the behaviour of a system or model whose components interact in multiple ways and follow local rules, meaning there is no reasonable higher instruction to define the various possible interactions. The term is generally used to characterise something with many parts where those parts interact with each other in multiple ways, culminating in a higher order of emergence greater than the sum of its parts.” But there is no singular definition for complexity. Fittingly, it’s… complex. Ergo, it’s probably worth having a dally in the various topics nested within ‘Complex Systems’ to familiarise yourself with the wondrous but nebulous territories. Dave Snowden’s ‘Cynefin framework’ is also incredibly useful.

Yet still: there’s a point at which models and definitions start lose their appeal. They get too analytical. Any attempt to ‘map’ a complex reality removes you from it—and so the quest for accuracy comes at the cost of utility. This is Bonini’s paradox. I could dump a whole bunch of supra-analytical attempts to ‘define’ complexity—but these are mostly quite dense and can be alienating, pending your complexity bias.*

* We all have a complexity bias for information. Thus, pending where yours currently rests, things will either seem counter-intuitively verbose and needlessly vague—or flattened and crude (and thus prone to misinterpretation).

Rather than repeat what is already written, I'll do my best to distil my own stance and relation to ‘complexity’ as a trickster-fox-like ‘wizard-philosopher who masquerades as a leadership advisor’. In this way, my own distortions and biases might be a tad more apparent. If you seek a less amateur accounting, I highly recommend the paper Fostering Complexity Thinking in Action Research for Change in Social–Ecological Systemsand also the writings of the academic researcher and complexity practitioner Sonja Blignaut. And while you’re at it, have a look at the model of hierarchal complexity, too (but read these important caveats first).

First: do you actually mean ‘complicated’?

Chances are: you probably do. This is perhaps the most common conflation of complexity. So, let’s be clear: unless you are attempting to encrypt something (or are deliberately intending to hamper or impede efficacy), I daresay none of us would want unnecessary complication. Thus: attempts to eliminate, remove or reduce complications are almost always a desirable thing. Can we make the machine work with fewer parts? Can the user achieve their objective in fewer steps? Can we remove superfluous information without diminishing understanding? If yes: do it. This is a key to good design.

For who wants work and life to be more complicated? Very few, I’d wager.

But who wants life to be more complex?

Hoho, that’s hard to say.

For starters, there’s an issue with the term ‘more’ here. Complexity is non-linear. It could be said that postindustrial societies are more complex than premodern societies—there are many more things happening, in many more domains (largely because of how networked/entangled we have become). Likewise, it could be said that a tropical rainforest is more complex than a cornfield, or a parking lot. But is ‘more’ complexity ‘better’?

There is no objectively correct answer here, of course. It’s a ridiculous question.

But, for what its worth, I suspect that the more we lean into ‘complexity thinking’ (lived and embraced)—the savvier we get at coordinating at higher orders of complexity—the better we will be at navigating the myriad hypercomplex transnational challenges of our times. To say I suspect this kind of development is ‘important’ is an understatement: it may be the very thing that saves us from societal collapse.

A ‘simple’ heuristic* to keep in mind: a complicated system is like a ‘machine’; a complex system is like a ‘forest’.

* A heuristic is “an approach to problem solving or self-discovery that employs a practical method that is not guaranteed to be optimal, perfect or rational, but instead sufficient for reaching an immediate goal. Where finding an optimal solution is impossible or impractical, heuristic methods can be used to speed up the process of finding a satisfactory solution. Heuristics can be mental shortcuts that ease the cognitive load of making a decision.” (from wikipedia, bless) Thus: very useful in complexity, if held lightly.

Myths, metaphors, analogies and heuristics are useful when dealing with complexity—they help us traverse richly complex/ambiguous/paradoxical territories without getting bogged down in detailed pseudo-sterile ‘objective’ analysis-attempts.

With this frame in mind, let’s contrast complicated (machine-like) systems with complex (forest-like) systems. Sonja Blignaut provides an apt, succinct and accessible article on 7 Differences between complex and complicated systems. This article lead me to Professor Roberto Poli’s well worded distinction:

Complicated problems originate from causes that can be individually distinguished; they can be address­ed piece by­ piece; for each input to the system there is a proportionate output; the relevant systems can be controlled and the problems they present admit permanent solutions.

On the other hand, complex problems and systems result from networks of multiple interacting causes that cannot be individually distinguished; must be addressed as entire systems, that is they cannot be addressed in a piecemeal way; they are such that small inputs may result in disproportionate effects; the problems they present cannot be solved once and for ever, but require to be systematically managed and typically any intervention merges into new prob­lems as a result of the interventions dealing with them; and the relevant systems cannot be controlled — the best one can do is to influence them, or learn to ‘dance with them’…”

Perhaps it’s helpful to consider two paired concepts:

{Complicated & Reduced} ≠ {Complex & Simple}

A complicated system can be reduced down to linear causality between simple components. An experienced expert can usually run a diagnostic to identify and ‘zero-in’ on broken parts, which can then be fixed to make the complicated system function again. Think of this as akin to someone repairing a mechanical watch. Or, if your car breaks down, it is less than helpful for your roadside assistance mechanic to wax philosophical about how the problem is nested within a more complex system. Rather: you want them to use their expertise to diagnose the problem, reduce things down, find the root cause, and fix it. Because in this context, a clear fix is possible.

A complex system, however, cannot be reduced reliably—causality is networked and non-linear, multiple interconnected components interact with each other, with no clearly distinguishable pathways of cause-and-effect. But complex systems can sometimes demonstrate ‘fractal simplicities’—recurring patterns that make a (self-similar) kind of ‘sense’ across different levels of complexity and abstraction.

Still, there are no singular root causes for the phenomena that emerges from within a complex system. And thus the challenges complex systems are often wickedly entangled. You can’t ‘fix’ a forest (or a ‘workplace culture’) for example. But there are often ‘general principles’ that can be surfaced to make for wiser decisions, and to shape and influence the kinds of behaviours we would like to see. In this way, it is possible to cultivate ‘leadership principles’ (as distinct from strict rules) to hold loosely as we to navigate the various complexities and ambiguities.

You notice the shift in developmental disposition betwixt complicated and complex systems, yes? To misappropriate a quote from The Listening Society by Hanzi Freinacht:

“You go from simple black-and-white thinking, to complex and nuanced thinking, and from there to finding new simplicities in the form of underlying, universal guiding principles: towards what you might call a ‘second simplicity’.”

But you won’t arrive at this ‘second simplicity’ unless you are willing to accept and work with complexity.

Sooo… that’ll probably do for my preamble for now. Hopefully you have a sense of where I am coming from in relation to complexity thinking. If you need further grist, Sonja Blignaut’s 7 Implications of seeing organisations as complex systems is a useful primer.

Now, onto the article itself…

Okay well, ha, it turns out it’s not an article—it’s a consulting brochure for a consulting firm I don’t really know. Already we know it is going to be laced with bullshit*—something to be expected in this arena, I suspect. Anyway, let’s see what folk might be missing.

* Bullshit being that which enhances our capacity for self-deception.

This feels like a puzzle.

Q: What oddities—when viewed through the lens of ‘complexity thinking’ (a term I don’t personally like, but whatevs)—can you spot in the following cover image?

A: Reference to a singular ‘key’ solution, reference to a set quantified number of steps, potential conflation of ‘decluttering’ with ‘complexity’, horrendous notion of ‘killing complexity’, impression that an enterprise is a set of static puzzle pieces that share a neat linear interlocking relationship to each other (reductive). To name a few.

And yes I am being facetious here. What else might people miss?

Actually: it’s a crock.

I thought this would be intellectually fun. I wish I had read the document properly first. It’s so very obviously a generic sales document, designed to capitalise on the sheer overwhelm faced by executives within enterprises today.

None of the terms are defined within this document—and this enables a large range of slack in how concepts might be interpreted. This is ‘clever’ in the same way that Trump’s “Make America Great Again” could have people fill the ambiguity with their own meaning (their own version of ‘great’).

One thus needs to relate to this document as a bundle of seemingly attractive ‘sentiments’ cloaked in corporate costume. To the lay person I am sure it looks legit—there are numbers, graphs, bold statements and plenty of footnotes. There are even several neat linear models with circles.

The ‘complexity challenge’ from ‘Why simplicity is the key to accelerating performance’ (a brochure)

Linearity is seductive—it makes sense to frame thing like this to people otherwise ‘too busy to think’ (complexly). Enterprise leaders love themselves a ‘roadmap’ (even if the savvier recognise it as but a propaganda device for a more complex process).

But as Dave Snowden remarks: “just because you draw a linear process as a circle it doesn’t make it non-linear”.

From ‘complexity to simplicity’ from ‘Why simplicity is the key to accelerating performance’ (a brochure)

The thing is: I don’t know if these guys are even trying to come across as complexity thinkers. It’s almost as though they are positioning themselves as somehow above and seperate-to ‘the complexity’ at play (an impossible feat). Even to the point of ‘measuring’ the ‘increase in organisational complexity’. “According to outside research, complexity in large organizations has increased 7%, on average, within five decades,” they say. The ‘outside research’ they refer to is a HBR article written by a senior partner at The Boston Consulting Group (BCG). Interestingly, the BCG partner references BCG’s own ‘index of complicatedness’ (not complexity).*

* And of course, their own work is not published in any peer-reviewed journal (and is otherwise difficult to access and assess). I suspect it is instead a form of internal myth-making to propagate more enterprise sales. If one were cynical, one could say that consulting firms are very good at selling problems as a precursor to selling solutions (which then generate more problems).

Anyways, back to the main article at hand. Their bottom line—the ‘solution’, it seems—all comes down to the ill-defined notion of: ‘simplicity thinking’.

‘Core tenets of simplicity thinking’ from ‘Why simplicity is the key to accelerating performance’ (a brochure)

Along with several nebulous-terms-that-sound-concrete (like ‘cultural pillars’ and ‘mind-sets’) the document continues to tout a bunch of language that probably seems legit to the busy mind. ‘Building simplicity as a skill’ by following ‘a five-step process for killing complexity’, they say. Hoho: wot?

Confusingly, the document ends quite coherently, quoting a tenant from the now almost two-decades old Agile Manifesto: “Simplicity—the art of maximising the amount of work not done—is essential”. And this is a really good point. Simplicity and complexity go hand-in-hand.

But if we are quoting old manifestos, it might have been more effective to reference The Responsive Org Manifesto—but that would mean acknowledging and working with increasing complexity, rather than seeking to ‘kill’ it.

And what’s with this talk of killing, anyway? If things are not merely needlessly complicated, but needlessly complex—maybe we ought release complexity (as per this intelligent series of articles).

The document is a soup of conflations and misconceptions loosely bundled around sentiment in an attempt to sound impressive and credible. Super confounding if you are paying attention—but many executives are ‘busy’ and spread thin across many distractions. In my experience, many executives are often super tired and overwhelmed by complexity (anyone would be)—and thus it’s much easier for them to see the world in bullet points. There are no doubt some good intentions baked into an approach that is otherwise linear, reductive and philosophically askew. But ultimately, it’s a sales tool. And it probably works well. It could be just the thing this consulting firm uses to get past the gatekeepers and trojan-horse genuine brilliance into the mix. I have no idea.

It comes down to ‘intellectual honesty’.

Either the authors of this document are not so intellectual, or not so honest. Or both, or neither. And all of the above.*

* Again: a little bullshit is often necessary to create salience—things need to stand out in a world of busyness and overwhelm, like click-bait. So: if I were to be kind I would say that it is better to view this document as a device to win over folks to the point where a real conversation might begin.

In the process of writing this I am personally glad to have come across Sonja Blignaut’s 7 Lessons I’ve learnt consulting as a complexity practitioner. It’s inspired me to reflect of my own approach, and what I bring into the mix. For example, I sometimes deploy ‘business language’ in an ironic sense so as to smuggle a kind of ‘new sincerity’ into the mix. I try to do this transparently, in a somewhat metamodern manner (sidestepping convention with new metaphor, whilst occasionally embracing trite buzzwords for amusement and affect). It could be interesting to surface what nebulous Principles guide my own work. But that’s a story for another time.

Right now I feel like a pedant.

I’m disappointed in myself. Our world is in the grips of a meta-crisis—the climate emergency, ecological devastation, systemic inequality, modern alienation (and more)—and I spend my time writing petty quibbles about a small consulting firm’s sales document.

I ought to be at least marketing the Choose One Word ‘Ritual of Becoming’ we recently released, where $50 of each enrolment goes to support wildlife rescue, First Nations people and ecosystem conservation in the wake of the (still) devastating Australian bushfires.* Or at least I ought to be holding a hose, or something.°

* I wrote about this in my museletter last week. But now I wonder: are we simply responding to salience and immediacy? Have we been seduced into linear causality? I suspect yes—and there are plenty of immediate concerns where ‘real action’ is meaningful and needed. But the real issues are deeply systematic—if we fail to address these, we will just end up with more fires, floods, and similar disasters. This is climate change—one of the most hypercomplex transnational issues of our times. It requires all of us to work together, and coordinate at higher levels of complexity.
° I don’t really mean this: I would be useless and there are plenty of folk better equipped (physically, mentally, geographically) than I. I deploy this sentence in an attempt to have folk realise that contribution needn’t always be directly at the firefront‡—there are many, many small but significant steps one can take (see here, and here). If we reflect upon where we invest our energy—what systems and causes we support—it may just be that, collectively, we can move towards a future less dark.
Australia is abysmal when it comes climate change. A global embarrassment, utterly woeful. In the short term, we need to see a major shift towards a government that supports strong and intelligent policies on climate change (ie, getting more of The Greens in power). And increasingly, from now onwards, we need to move ‘beyond left and right’ politics, towards something that might resemble what Hanzi Frienacht calls a ‘listening society’. This work is complex—but also: delicately ‘mapped’ (with sensitivity to complexity) in The Nordic Ideology.
Having said that: hats off to the incredible folks who brave these hellish conditions. I’m sure they’d rather not have to.

What’s really going on here?

Well, maybe there’s a part of me that wants to be seen by my friend as clever and worth listening to. Maybe this all stems from a fear of being misunderstood, or not loved or whatever. Who knows.

Maybe there’s a part of me that bemoans the fact that so many folks seem to yearn for simple ‘solutions’ whilst in denial of complexity. The result instead is that we end up treating complex systems as complicated—and thus our ‘solutions’ are reactive, short-sighted, simplistic (not simple) and liable to perpetuate the deeper issues at play.

But hey: we all need to do what we all need to do. We all have our part to play in this unfurling cosmic pantomime. As a Wizard, my Role seems to be that of one who assists those who lead in complexity.

If you have people in your organisation: it’s complex.

Because we—you and I, each and every one of us—are infinitely complex. We are not merely individual cogs in a machine (though classic and conventional approaches to management might have you believe otherwise, thus dehumanising). And while we must of course work to remove unnecessary complications in our systems of work, we must do so knowing that this complicated system sits within much more complex contexts.

This hearkens to the great core worthy challenge of business:

How do we generate value?

That is: net value—the benefit that exists after all costs and externalities are accounted for. Value as seen through the lens of complexity.

This is not about ‘winning’ the current capitalist game, for our current system doesn’t factor in the myriad costs and harms of doing business—it celebrates winners and punishes the rest. The winners take all.

This is about living into a different kind of game—an infinite game, wherein we play not to win, but rather to continue the play. This behooves us to consider what meaningful progress really looks like—beyond the default. It beckons us to imagine new ways, and to consider a more planet-centric approach to business.* To strive to be not just ‘the best’ on the planet, but rather: the best for the planet—to go B Corp (and beyond).

* See also: Planet-Centred Design: A Mindset Shift For Engaging Complexity

This is not going to be straightforward. We all have work to do. I myself have work to do. We are right now reconfiguring this small practice Kim and I run to somehow be of even better net value to the world. If The Listening Society reawakened me to this (infinite) game, then the recent bushfire catastrophe in Australia really brought things to light. I still don’t know what to best do with the time and resources we have—it’s an unfurling process, and one can’t possibly know for sure. But still: we try.

One way or another I hope that maybe this musing perhaps encourages a few readers to reflect on their own world and work. For those feeling overwhelmed in an organisation seemingly full of needless complexity, perhaps it might encourage you to rise into complexity thinking (rather than try to reduce, deny or kill it).

It’s not the easier path, but I suspect it’s the wiser one.