An Outside In View of Complexity

Simplistic solution to complex problem
Tackling a topic like complex systems in simple terms is a worthy challenge. Because the reward is understanding. When we understand an issue and are able to break it down into its components we can begin to tackle it productively.

Bud Caddell uses a thought experiment to explain what complexity is, why it is important to meet it with rigor, and how to analyze it to do interesting things like predicting the future and adapting.

What are complex systems?

Complex systems are a network of things that are connected… that get to do really interesting things like anticipate the future and adapt.

Complexity is thus a measure of relationships.

Some examples:

  • dispersed control – like the Queen bee in a beehive
  • interacting agents – as in the behavior of many individuals who bring with them their own motivations, their own mental models, their own problem-solving strategies like the Stock Market
  • non-linearity – built on small elements that tend to interact and have much larger consequences, like the butterfly effect
  • adaptation – or the ability to anticipate the future by lots of agents, like a flock of birds
  • exhibit perpetual novelty – like the immune system that is constantly trying to predict what your body is being attacked by

The weather is a complex, adaptive system, for example. The best we can do is make a prediction of what might take place based on what we currently know about the system.

Complex problems demand complex problem solving.

We each have our own mental models and I would add our own strategies for how we go about solving problems, and even how we show up at work.

There is a name for the law of unintended consequences that occur when we attempt to solve a complex problem through a simplistic solution: it's called the Cobra Effect#.

Cornell U Networked to Fail Study

Paraphrasing Bud, the world is fundamentally interconnected, as this image from a Cornell University research right after the recession in 2008. We live in a more connected world, which means we have greater complexity — and that generates uncertainty.

Two theses emerge for me at this point in the talk:

1. Considering how we have created technology in our own image – OS as the brain, apps as where executions or actions come from, etc. – we are now able to see the connections that have been there all along, because we have the tools, AND to accelerate the pace of these interactions.

2. At a time when it would be most helpful to pause, take stock, look to understand, we instead look for greater velocity and simpler answers from crunching lots of data through computing systems; an approach that, without a throughtful hypothesis generates more noise instead of better clarity.

In other words, we have (mostly) lost the ability to listen and observe well, and have replaced it with increased urgency on doing and reacting. Chaos confuses us because we too often inject urgency to plug the holes in our logic.

In 2011, a European complexity science conglomerate started to map the economy again to see what lessons have we learned from 2008?

They found that there is now a supercluster of a 147 organizations in the world that now control 40% of the world's wealth.

We are still too connected not to fail.

Bud suggests five steps we can all take individually to learn to embrace complex systems:

  1. question the borders of problems and solutions
  2. think long term
  3. learn the network, which is more resilient
  4. study the connection forces themselves and the influence of the parts to the whole
  5. celebrate complexity

And disregard overly simplistic solutions.


Valeria is an experienced listener. She designs service and product experiences to help businesses rediscover the value of promises and its effect on relationships and culture. She is also frequent speaker at conferences and companies on a variety of topics. Book her to speak here.