Dealing with Complexity

When I was a young man (biologically that is!), I did consider myself to be a fast learner.  In those days, we still thought someone was intelligent if they could memorize a lot of stuff.  I would read my studies through a few times, and then I wold know enough to pass the exam.

And then I started learning that knowing what had happened in the past, was no longer sufficient.  It was good to know, but frequently only inasmuch it helped one to deal with the future.  So I started looking out for trends that I could take as signposts as what to expect in the future.  A few things happened:

  • Initially I understood what the drivers of behaviour were, and used this to plan for the future.
  • Then I at times learnt the hard way that the rules had changed. It was no longer sufficient to just understand what had happened – one had to also understand the present and deal with the present issues, given an understanding of the past.
  • This was not the end of it! At times I would find out that not only had the rules changed, but the playing field had changed as well!  Can you imagine the dismay if you rock up at Newlands Rugby Stadium, and the game was being played at Ellispark in Johannesburg!
  • But my biggest shock and dismay was reserved for the times I found out that the game had changed.  No longer was I playing rugby, but gridiron was the name of the (new) game!

It was like pulling a knife in a gunfight!  Not only was it life threatening, but you were made out to look like a fool as well!  I am not sure which was worse!

However, all was not lost! In one of my reading trips, I came across the book, “Solving Tough Problems” by Adam Kahane.  In this book, Adam refers to a number of kinds of complexities.  When I read this, I understood that it was only natural that I would find myself in the situations explained above.  We tend to think the world is nice and stable and that situations change nice and slowly.  Adam dispelled all this as a myth.

First of all, we find dynamic complexity.  There is a lot of dynamic complexity present if cause and effect is far removed in time and space, and less dynamic complexity if cause and effect was not so far removed in time and space.  What does this mean practically?

Let’s start with global warming.  The seeds for global warming do not take us back to the 1970’s or 1960’s.  It can indeed be taken back to the 1700’s when the industrial revolution started.  We could possibly even go back further.  I will put money on it that the industrialists of the day did not foresee that their actions would in 250 years lead to a situation where weather patterns would change due to pollution, etc!

Al Gore wrote about a whole lake that dried up because farmers built dams in the rivers feeding the lake!  This did not happen overnight!

Getting more personal, it has been stated that the Jesuits of old said that “give me the first 5 years of a child’s life, and I will make a good Catholic of them for the rest of their lives!”  In a similar way, if you stuff up a child’s upbringing during their first 5 years, you create the seeds for social disaster later in that child’s adult life – frequently in ways you have no way of predicting!  Alice Miller wrote about the phenomenon where child-rearing practices created adult pathologies.  This is how she explained how an intelligent group such as the Germans could tolerate a Hitler.  It also explains where a Hitler comes from!

John Kennedy has been quoted as to have said that a child miseducated is a child lost.  I would like to change this to say a child miseducated is an adult lost

The second form of complexity Kahane refers to, is generative complexity.  This form states that yesterday is no predictor for tomorrow.  The more this is the case, the greater the degree of generative complexity that is present.  Here we typically refer to a volatile environment.

The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 took the world by surprise, and led to a whole new world order, the ramifications of which are still being dealt with.

In South Africa in 1989, we saw a new president coming to power, one who had a reputation for being a conservative.  In fact it was rumoured that FW de Klerk threatened to leave the National Party with all his supporters were PW Botha to deliver the first version of the speech that later became known as the Rubicon speech of 1985. In spite of all this, on 2 Feb 1990 de Klerk unbanned the ANC and other political parties, released all political detainees from prison, and set the ball rolling for massive social and political change in South Africa.  Most South Africans, and probably most of the world, were stunned beyond believe!

The expansion of broad band internet has changed the world in incredible meaningful ways, ways that have been so eloquently described and explained by people such as Thomas L. Friedman.  No longer does the large company have a definite benefit over the smaller company.  New concepts such as Moore’s Law and Metcalfe’s Law, to name but a few, have developed.  Outsourcing, off-shoring, and even back-shoring have changed the competitive landscape. Just when you thought it safe to also move your factories to China, your rivals started moving theirs back due to increasing labour costs!

This same expansion of broad band is bringing about massive changes, not only in technology, but also in social circles.  Children are preparing for jobs we do not know what they will be. Yet we still find teachers trying to play the role of knowledge disseminator.  Why?  Because this is what teaching was about in the old days!

Think about 1998. This is when the South-East Asian financial system meltdown took place.  Institutions were dealing with the world as if yesterday was going to repeat itself today and tomorrow.  This strategy is referred to as “More of the Same.”  And it is disturbing how many companies adopt this strategy without applying their minds properly! We that live in the developing countries of the world, should have become more sensitive to this phenomenon. Alas, this is not necessarily the case.

The world has changed in real and meaningful ways after 9/11. We still do not know what has changed and what the world really looks like now!  We frequently still work on assumptions that were valid in the pre-9/11 era.  One can even say that the seeds for the next disaster were partially sown in this era.

Fast forward to September 2008.  Lehman Brothers goes belly-up and the world gets set on a whirlwind for at least the next 2 years. In spite of all the signs being present, we worked on “More of the Same”! And we still struggle with the fall-out of this financial meltdown, in ways clearly demonstrating that we do not really know what we should be doing! Countries are on the verge of going bankrupt! The levels of debt of Greece and Portugal are raising concerns and setting off alarm bells all over Europe.  What is going to happen to the European Union and the Euro were Germany and France to leave the EU? What are the chances of the latter happening? The reality is that we do not know! But what I do know is that we cannot look at the future with a rear-view mirror in our hands!

Fast forward to the end of 2010 and the start of 2011.  The advent of the Arab Spring!  Who would have thought that the population of the Arab nations would rise against their governments to demand democratic rights?  I was in Saudi Arabia in February 2011. I asked my host about the potential of Muammar Gadaffi picking up problems in his country (Libya)?  His answer? Extremely unlikely!  The same goes for the situation in Bahrain.  And now even Saudi has a few issues to deal with.  Women are demanding the right to drive motor vehicles!  Can you imagine?! And we still do not know what the ramifications of these happenings in the Arab nations hold for the world at large!  How will this effect Africa south of the Sahara? Will we see populations rising against dictators?  I have a feeling that we are on the verge of a new world in Africa, one where dictators and autocratic regimes will need to tread carefully!

The long and the short of it is that the world is changing at a rapid rate, and we had better understand this, as well as the caveat that we cannot expect more of the same when we plan for tomorrow!

The third form of complexity deals with social complexity.  The person next to year, in front of you, back of you, has a different culture, language, religion, skin colour, mental model, world view, etc.  Societies and nations are becoming socially so diverse, that it creates tremendous complexity.

It is not all bad news.  Diverse world views and mental models all contribute to increased creativity and innovation.  It also prevents group think and industry orthodoxies.

But is does require us to fully understand our neighbours.  It slows down decision making, and frequently creates hostility and misunderstanding.

The above reminds me of a song by Four Jacks and a Jill in the 1960’s, Master Jack.  The lyrics starts off with “it’s a strange, strange world we live in, Master Jack!”

The question that now goes begging is how do we deal with the complexities inherent in our societies?  How do we ensure that we understand the game we are playing, the nature of the playing field, and the rules inherent in the game, so as to prevent us from drawing that proverbial knife in a gunfight?

The short answer is that we require a systemic, integrative and inter-related worldview, where we are required to understand the whole before the parts make sense!  Either we become systemic thinkers, or we will be doomed to misunderstand the world we are living in, doomed to develop solutions which create even bigger problems, doomed to develop solutions based upon “More of the Same”!

The next posting will start to deal with the issues and practices of systems thinking.

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1 Response

  1. Durandt Groenewald says:

    Thank you Johan, i’ll follow with interest. Have heard that there were warnings before 9/11 but the sameold sameold mentality prevailed. The USA is i understand also technically bancrupt so a major dollar shocker could change the world just as suddenly as the fall of communism, etc