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What is complexity?

And why our increasing awareness of it changes everything

My friend Jade has a question she’s become very good at asking when any of us are feeling a little anxious: What is concrete about the situation?

It works because it’s a direct rebuttal to the cause of anxiousness: unease and apprehension about some yet-to-happen matter.

The answer is intended to identify what is within your control about a situation and what isn’t. What isn’t, of course, is often control over some outcome we have a vested interest in. That’s where the anxiety comes from. It’s apprehension over something that lies in the future.

A lack of control over an outcome is not something we’re comfortable with because we’re busy looking at the world linearly: if I do this, this will happen, because of that this will happen, then this will happen, and finally this will happen.

It’s how we work, too.

We sense a problem. We analyze the problem. We solve the problem. That’s how we plan. That’s how we improve. That’s how we manage.

The issue is that we often control the outcome of work problems as much as we do personal problems, which is to say, with actions we take that may influence the outcome toward a direction we desire … and not in ensuring the actual outcome itself.

That’s important! Because when our only option is to influence an outcome as opposed to controlling the outcome, we’re probably making a decision in what can be called a complex environment.

“Most situations and decisions in organizations are complex because some major change—a bad quarter, a shift in management, a merger or acquisition—introduces unpredictability and flux,” write the Cynefin framework’s co-creator Dave Snowden and article co-author Mary Boone.

The Cynefin framework

The Cynefin framework is a useful tool in our effort to better function in a world where our awareness of complexity—if anything, a way of looking at the world—is rapidly increasing.

It prompts us to stop and ask: What is concrete about this situation?

It’s a critical question because, contrary to our decades-long de facto one-size-fits-all decision-making approach, we’re actually making decisions in four different business environments according to the Cynefin framework: simple, complicated, complex, and chaotic.

While that one-size-fits-all decision-making approach is appropriate for some contexts, it can be quite disastrous in others.

Instead, the Cynefin framework theorizes that to successfully address a problem we’re better off first understanding which environment it’s occurring in.

Until then: we’re in a state of disorder, which is not where we want to be yet increasingly where we are, usually with no awareness that different business environments even exist! Every problem looks like every other problem if we’ve only ever recognized one type of problem.

To move out of disorder, represented by the black holish area in the middle of the diagram, we can rely on the Cynefin framework as a sense-making device to help us assess what’s concrete about a problem-to-be-solved situation.

Only when we stop to understand the context of a decision can we determine the best way to proceed.

This, of course, is not how organizations (nor the people making decisions) have been approaching decision making for the last hundred-plus years.

But if we’re going to function in complexity, it’s a must.

Complexity, I’ve found, can be a difficult to succinctly define existence—you know it when you see it—and comparing it to what we already know can be an easy and enlightening introduction to this all-important concept.

What we already know is a many, many, many number of problems at work are being approached as if the outcome can be dictated. This is the approach of: if we do this, then we know this will happen.

The Cynefin framework separates this approach into two related (and different!) domains: simple and complicated. The simple and complicated are familiar because they’re how we’ve been approaching work since we started our first jobs, they’re how we were taught to problem solve, and they’re the example on display in nearly every organization.

The simple environment is characterized by a cause and effect relationship known by everyone. As a rudimentary example, think about driving a car as it begins to get dark—we all know to turn the headlights on and we’re all going to do the same thing every time.

“Simple contexts, properly assessed, require straightforward management and monitoring. Here, leaders sense, categorize, and respond,” write Snowden and Boone. “That is, they assess the facts of the situation, categorize them, and then base their response on established practice.”

Established practice, or the more colloquial best practice, is used for decisions in the simple domain because the outcome can be predicted in advance, everyone is able to recognize the problem, and there is a single right answer.

A complicated environment is one where cause and effect can be understood through analysis, often by an expert, whether that’s us or someone we consult. Here there is at least one right answer, but it isn’t evident to someone without expertise on the topic. This is the domain of sense, analyze, respond.

For example, when the check engine light on your dashboard comes on, you know to take the car to a mechanic (unless you have a fully functioning mechanic-set up at home and the expertise required to recognize and fix the problem). The mechanic then analyzes the car using good practice, potentially one of multiple legitimate ways to address the problem.

In those scenarios, however, where the right answer is proving elusive through analysis, it’s likely the situation is complex, the environment where “much of contemporary business has shifted,” write Snowden and Boone.

They continue, “Leaders who try to impose order in a complex context will fail, but those who set the stage, step back a bit, allow patterns to emerge, and determine which ones are desirable will succeed.”

Complex environments call for ideas. Because cause and effect can’t be understood until after the fact, the domain requires trying solutions in small ways, monitoring effectiveness, and then amplifying or dampening the interventions. Probe, sense, respond.

Traffic during your commute is a good example of complexity. All the cars and trucks on all the roads have an influence on all the other cars and trucks on the roads. Add road construction or an accident and new challenges emerge. Navigating your way to the next destination may require a different route.

At work, complexity is everywhere because humans are a major source of surprise, as are competitors, and regulators, and the economy, etc, etc, etc. Complexity exists because all of these things are interdependent, obviously to different degrees, and interconnected, also to different degrees, so that when something happens it influences the others, sometimes dramatically.

In complexity, there are no right answers, only possibilities, because of the flux and unpredictability. Surprise is a persistent result of action, taken by us or others, which requires even more ideas and more probes.

Our efforts are to identify new, or emergent, ways of doing things because, by definition, the problem we’re solving (actually complex problems can only be managed) has not been experienced before, at least in some subtle way. They’re new and unique.

The last domain, chaotic, is one we’re rarely in and is signaled by no perceivable relationship (at least for the moment) between cause and effect. Here we act, sense, and respond because the action will provide new information for the purposes of moving us into a different domain where we can better manage the situation.

So, yes, the chaotic can become complex. And the complex, complicated. The complicated can transition to simple. And vice-versa every which way. As we’ve established, each domain calls for a different decision-making approach, so the boundaries are for signaling and recognizing when those transitions occur.

Except for the special case of the boundary between simple and chaotic. That’s a cliff. It’s a complacent zone. If you fall off the cliff, now you’ve got a crisis and it can be challenging to recover.

As a result, Snowden and Boone advise, “You should manage in the complicated and complex spaces and only move a very small amount of material down into the simple because that’s actually highly vulnerable to rapid or accelerated change.”

There it is: manage in the complicated and complex environments knowing full-well that more and more of the problems we’re encountering are in the complex domain, where what’s concrete is not the outcome of the intervention, but the influence we hold for approaching the problem.

It’s worth noting one more time: this is a gargantuan shift from how we (and the organizations we work for) have approached problems for the last hundred-plus years.

One more from Snowden and Boone to send us out: “Manage starting conditions and monitor for emergence. Because outcomes are unpredictable in a complex context, leaders need to focus on creating an environment from which good things can emerge, rather than trying to bring about predetermined results and possibly missing opportunities that arise unexpectedly.”

So the next time you’ve identified a problem, ask: What’s concrete about this situation? And if you can’t reliably count on an intervention to be the 100% solution, you’re likely operating in complexity:

Probe. Sense. Respond.

So at work as you encounter problems to be solved, identify them as complicated or complex. Are others approaching solving them in the appropriate way?

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