Our lives are becoming increasingly complex and recently the challenges of complexity even disrupted my favourite Canberra breakfast spot, Silo Bakery.
Silo was found to have served salmonella infected food, and subsequently shutdown temporarily by local health authorities.
The source of infection was traced to some free-range eggs they used in making their own mayonnaise.
You may be asking yourself what has mayonnaise got to with complexity – and where does the picture fit?
My issue today is not about the impact of disruption on small business, nor about the less than empathetic position the owner of Silo presented in the media.
The issue is that we do not understand complexity, how it differs from things that are complicated – and why we must not address these things using simple, or inaapriopriate practices.
Too often we find the terms complex and complicated used interchangeably, which they should not be. The late Paul Cilliers was a respected expert on the subject of complexity, and offered this explanation of the difference.
“I have heard it said … that a jumbo jet is complicated, but that a mayonaise is complex.” – Cilliers, Complexity and Postmodernism
This is because the jumbo jet, despite having a massive number of parts, can be taken apart, understood at the component level and re-assembled – of course subject to having the required detailed technical knowledge. The Mayonnaise can only be examined at the holistic level – you cannot take it apart to analyse it.
The Australian Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) describes two properties that it uses to explain the difference between complex and the merely complicated. Complex systems exhibit;
- “the appearance of behaviours that could not be anticipated from a knowledge of the parts of the systems alone”
- this is where the term ’emergent property’ that you often see used to describe resilience originates.
- there are no external controllers or planners
- the emergent features appear spontaneously.
They provide examples of complex systems including the Stock Market, the Weather and Society.
Complex would also describe our complicated Jumbo Jet once you add a crew and passengers – even more so when you add weather as QANTAS have discovered recently. We can never know for sure what will happen on a flight.
Relating this to the practice of our craft, we need to be able to correctly categorise the situation or problem so we can apply the correct approach – otherwise we set ourselves up to fail.
- Is it ‘knowable’?
- The complicated can be known – if we bring in appropriate expertise and give them the required time and resources.
- The complex can never be fully known – and we need to probe/experiment to start to learn about it.
- The complicated can be examined in terms of its component parts.
- The complex needs to be understood holistically.
- Once understood, we can design and build controls for the complicated system
- In the case of the complex we need to act on controlling the environment and therefore influence the system – we cannot control the system due to emergence and self-organisation.
When you think about this, you will want to categorise most of your problems as complicated – because you are probably better equipped to understand and deal with those. But wanting them to fit a certain model will not make it so.
Resilience is a wicked problem, there are many complex challenges in establishing strategic and operational resilience in an organisation. Not the least of which is the number and different types of people you have to interact with.
In the next post I will explore some tools and techniques that can be applied to understand and shape complexity. In the interim, I would be interested in other’s views on complexity.
How do you see the difference between complex and complicated?
Are you still trying to make “Plan.Do, Check, Act thinking” work on complex problems?