It’s complicated!…or is it?

mandelbrot-setI’ll  start with a question: What’s the difference between the two words ‘Complex’ and ‘Complicated’?

Have a think about that for a minute…and see what you arrive at.

I did a bit of fumbling around and can report back that:

  • If you look these two words up in the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), then you’d think they mean the same thing; however
  • If you search Google for ‘complex vs. complicated’, then you’ll find oodles of articles explaining that they differ, and (in each author’s opinion) why; and yet
  • …. if you were to read a cluster of those articles you’d find totally contradictory explanations!

Mmmm, that’s complicated…or is that complex?

This post aims to clarify, and in so doing, make some incredibly important points! It’s probably one of my most ‘technical’ efforts…but if you grapple with it then (I believe that) there is gold within.

Starting with definitions:

Here are the OED definitions:

Complex: consisting of many different and connected parts.

  • Not easy to analyse or understand; complicated or intricate”

Complicated: consisting of many interconnecting parts or elements; intricate.

  • Involving many different and confusing aspects
  • In Medicine: Involving complications.”

So, virtually the same – in fact one refers to the other! – but I think we can agree that neither are simple 🙂 . They are both about parts and their interconnections.

Turning to the ‘science’ of systems:

scienceWhilst the OED uses the ‘complex’ and ‘complicated’ words interchangeably, Systems Thinkers have chosen to adopt distinctly different meanings. They do this to usefully categorise different system types.

Reading around systemsy literature2, I repeatedly see the following categorisation usage:

Simple systems: Contain only a few parts interacting, where these are obvious to those that look; Extremely predictable and repeatable

Example: your seat on an aeroplane

Complicated systems: Many parts, they operate in patterned (predictable) ways but ‘how it works’ is not easily seen…except perhaps by an expert

Example: flying a commercial aeroplane…where, of note, its predictability makes it very safe

Complex systems: unpredictable because the interactions between the parts are continually changing and the outcomes emerge – and yet look ‘obvious’ with the benefit of hindsight.

Example: Air Traffic Control, constantly changing in reaction to weather, aircraft downtime…etc.

“…and the relevance of this is?”

There is a right way, and many a wrong way, to intervene in systems, depending on their type! Therefore, correct categorisation is key.

A (the?) major mistake that ‘leaders’ of organisations make is they presume that they are dealing with a complicated system…when in fact it is complex4. If you initially find this slightly confusing (it is!) then just re-read, and ponder, the definitions above.

Management presume that they are operating within a complicated (or even simple) system whenever they suppose that they can:

– administer a simple course of ‘best practise’ or external expert advice…and all will be well;

– plan in detail what something will turn out like, how long it will take and at what cost…when they’ve never done it before!;

– implement stuff as if it can simply be ‘rolled back’ to an earlier state if it doesn’t work out…not understanding that, once acted upon, the people affected have been irrevocably changed (and regularly suffer from what I refer to as ‘change fatigue’5);

– isolate and alter parts of the system to deliver a predicted (and overly simplistic) outcome…by which I am referring to the slapstick ‘benefits case’ and it’s dastardly offspring the ‘benefits realisation plan’…

…Management can, of course, invoke the Narrative Fallacy to convince themselves that all that was promised has been achieved (and will be sustained)…whilst ignoring any inconvenient ‘side effects’;

– strip out (and throw away) fundamental parts of a system whilst invoking their constant simplification battle cry…because they can’t (currently) see, let alone understand, why these parts are necessary;

…and I’m sure you can carry on the list.

The distinction between ‘complicated’ and ‘complex’ fits quite nicely with Russell Ackoff’s distinction between deterministic (mechanistic) and organic systems; and  John Seddon’s distinction between manufacturing and service organisations (and the complexity of variety in customer demand).

Put simply 🙂 , in complex systems, it’s the relationships between the parts (e.g. people) that dominate.

So what?

jack-deeWell, if Management understand that they are dealing with a complex organisation then they will (hopefully) see the importance of designing their system to take advantage of (rather than butcher) this fact.

Such a design might include:

  • aligning individual and organisational purpose, by sharing success (and removing management instruments that cause component-optimising behaviours)
  • putting capability measures into the hands of front line/ value creating workers, where such measures:
  • allowing and supporting the front line/ value creating workers to:
    • absorb the customer variety that presents itself to them; and
    • imagine, and experiment with, ways of improving the service for their customers
  • …and much much more systemsy thinking

This would mean creating a system that is designed to continuously adjust as its components change in relation to one another. That would be the opposite of ‘command and control’.

Huge clarification: Many a command-and-control manager may respond that, yes, they already continually adjust their system…I know you do!!!  It’s not you that should be doing the adjusting…and so to self-organisation:

From simple to complex…and back again6

answersThe giant systems thinker Donella Meadows wrote that highly functional systems (i.e. the ones that work really well) likely contain three characteristics – resilience7, self-organisation and hierarchy8.

I’ll limit myself here to writing about self-organisation:

“The most marvellous characteristic of some complex systems is their ability to learn, diversify, complexify, evolve…This capacity of a system to make its own structure more complex is called self-organisation(Meadows)

Wow, ‘complexify’ – a new word?!…and it can be a very good thing…and goes 1800 against the corporate simplification mantra:

“We would do better at encouraging, rather than destroying, the self-organising capacities of the systems of which we are a part….which are often sacrificed for purposes of short-term productivity and stabiliy7(Meadows)

It turns out that complexity isn’t of itself a bad thing…in fact quite the opposite – a system can achieve amazing things as it becomes more complex. Just consider that, through the process of evolution, ‘we’ have ‘complexified’ (can you see what I did there) from amoeba to human beings!

…but what’s REALLY interesting is that this complexity is enabled by simplicity!

“System theorists used to think that self-organisation was such a complex property of systems that it could never be understood…new discoveries, however, suggest that just a few simple organising principles can lead to wildly diverse self-organising structures.” (Meadows)

Meadows went on to note that:

“All of life, from viruses to redwood trees, from amoebas to elephants, is based on the basic organising rules encapsulated in the chemistry of DNA, RNA, and protein molecules.”

In short: Simple rules can allow complex systems to blossom, self-learn and grow.

I believe that a wonderful, and complex, organisation can be created and sustained from living a simple philosophy.

“Simple, clear purpose and principles give rise to complex and intelligent behaviour.

Complex rules and procedures give rise to simple and stupid behaviour.” (Dee Hock)

….so what might such a simple philosophy be? Well, Deming was ‘all over’ this with his ‘Theory of Profound knowledge’* and ’14 points for Management’.

* Deming explained simply that we should:

  • Observe, and handle, the world around us as systems (which, by definition, require a purpose that is obvious to all);
  • Expose, and understand, variation;
  • Gain knowledge through studying and experimenting;
  • Understand psychology and truly respect each and every human being ; and
  • Lead through our actions and abilities.

…and a final warning against that oversimplification thing:

“Collapse is simply the last remaining method of simplification.”  (Clay Shirky)

The short ‘simple’ version at the end of the long ‘complicated’ one 🙂

‘Complexity’ is not the inherently bad ogre as persistently painted by contemporary management. Rather, it can be a defining property of our organisational system that we would do well to understand and embrace.

Let’s feast at the ’complex but right’ bookcase of knowledge, design appropriate and evolving responses based on simple scientific wisdom and climb the mountain…rather than automatically follow the crowd over the ‘simple but wrong’ cliff!

Footnotes

1. Opening Image: This image is a part of the Mandelbrot Set – an amazingly complicated (or is that complex?) image that is derived from the application of a simple mathematical formula. It sits within the fractal school of Mathematics (repeating patterns) alongside others such as the Koch snowflake.

Image Source : CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=322029

2. Systems Thinking Literature: This systems thinking is taken, in part, from a 2011 HBR article Learning to Live with Complexity.

3. Dave Snowden’s Cynefin framework is built (partly) around the difference between complicated and complex….and the importance of correctly identifying your system type before intervening. Snowden’s framework also adds the idea of chaotic systems, where there is some emergency that requires urgent action (without the time to experiment)…where the action chosen may determine how the chaos is halted…which may or may not be in your favour!

4. The inclusion of people in a system likely makes it complex.

5. Change Fatigue: This is my phrase for those people who have worked for an organisation for many years and had the annual ‘silver bullet’ change programme rolled out on them…and got bored of the same lecture and the same outcomes. It is very hard to energise (i.e. excite) someone with ‘change fatigue’.

6. Cartoon: I LOVE this cartoon! It is sooo apt. The vast majority are on the simple road, following the crowd over an (unseen) cliff…or at least not seen until it is too late. A few turn right at the ‘bookcase of knowledge’ – they take a book or two and then travel a circuitous and uphill road to an interesting destination.

7. Resilience vs. stability clarification: “Resilience is not the same thing as being…constant over time. Resilient systems can be very dynamic….conversely, systems that are constant over time can be unresilient.” (Donella Meadows)

8. Hierarchy: I’m aware that some organisations have experimented without a formal hierarchy (e.g. Holacracy). However, even they create a set of rules to assist them co-ordinate their component parts.

It’s worth noting that “Hierarchies evolve from the lowest level up…the original purpose of a hierarchy is always to help its originating subsystems do their jobs better…[however] many systems are not meeting our goals because of malfunctioning hierarchies…

 To be a highly functional system, hierarchy must balance the welfare, freedoms and responsibilities of the subsystems and total system – there must be enough central control to achieve co-ordination towards the large-system goal, and enough autonomy to keep all subsystems flourishing, functioning, and self-organising.” (Meadows)

 

“Why is your proposed change so profound?”

knot-systemMy recent serialised post titled “Your Money or your Life!” proposed that every ‘large corporate’* should make a meaningful change…that would be for the good of all.

Wow, that would be great!

* Where ‘large corporate’ is short form for ‘controlled by free-floating short-term thinking shareholders’.

I got thinking (as is often the case after pressing the ‘publish’ button) about readers thinking:

“Erm, okay – interesting perspective –  but why is the suggested change supposedly so profound?”

…and this caused me to question whether I had got the ‘this is a potential game changer!’ point across.

Note: What follows is relevant when considering ANY proposed change, not just the contents of my last post!

And so to a ‘systems thinking’ explanation:

First, a definition:

“A system is an interconnected set of elements that is coherently organised in a way that achieves something.

If you look at that definition closely for a minute, you can see that a system must consist of three kinds of things: elements, interconnections, and a function or purpose1.” (Donella Meadows)

Going back to an organisation (yours, mine,…wherever) as a system to ponder:

  • The Elements are pretty obvious – they include the people, the products and services offered, the physical buildings and resources, lots of intangible pieces (distinct departments, teams within) and so on…;

  • The Interconnections are the “the relationships that hold the elements together” e. g. the physical flows of work, the business policies and guidelines, external laws and regulations, the communications (including the gossip!), and flows of information (signals that go to decision or action points…which may or may not trigger reactions);

  • The Purpose of a system, whilst essential, is often hard to see (even if you think you know what it is!):

 “The best way to deduce the system’s purpose is to watch for a while to see how the system behaves…Purposes are deduced from behaviour, not from rhetoric or stated goals.”

 What you see may be very different to what you are told.

…and so, if you want to change an organisational system, presumably through a desire to improve (and even transform) it, then you have three “kinds of things” to play with.

Taking each ‘kind of thing’ in turn:

Elements

 “Changing elements usually has the least effect on the system.”

Using rugby and the All Blacks to illustrate the point: The coaches can change one or two players but, if they keep everything else the same, then not too much will change.

Now, sure, some elements may be very important (perhaps the introduction of a brilliant goal kicker) but, even then, the worth of such a change is hugely constrained by the rest of the system.

You might change ALL the elements (e.g. players) but if you keep the interconnections (such as the game plan, methods of communication, information sharing, the environment of trust and respect…) and purpose the same, then very little change may occur.

dan-and-richieA positive example of this phenomenon: The All Blacks won the rugby World Cup in 2011 and 2015, making them the first team ever to achieve ‘back-to-back’ rugby World Cups.  They did this with a core of extremely influential world-class players3who then promptly retired!

The world rugby media wondered how the All Blacks would rebuild, given the apparently gaping holes these players would leave. Many a pundit envisioned dark days ahead.

And yet a few weeks ago (on 22nd Oct 2016), despite introducing many new players, the All Blacks broke the world record for the number of consecutive international games won against ‘Tier one’ rugby nations (18 games). In short, rather than going backwards, they have ‘kicked on’ to even higher levels.

Their purpose and interconnections have clearly been shown to be stronger than the elements (e.g. players).

To the world of work: and organisational ‘restructures’. If you re-jig your hierarchical structure, changing the departments and faces within, but keep the methods of interconnection (the management system) and the underlying purpose the same (whether profit or political ideology), then not much has really changed.

“A system generally goes on being itself, changing only slowly if at all, even with complete substitution of its elements – as long as its interconnections and purposes remain intact.”

Further, you may have convinced yourself that your problems were ‘because of’ individuals…but consider that you may have ‘cut out’ the symptom and not the cause. If you don’t learn from this then you can expect another (costly) restructure in maybe 12 months time…and again…and again.

Interconnections

 “Changing interconnections in a system can change it dramatically.”

chris-robshawSo, staying with rugby, let’s move to the English national team.  In contrast to the All Blacks, they have had two terrible World Cups.

In 2011: they travelled to New Zealand and were awful (I know – I watched them!) They were heavily criticised for their attitude, and off field behaviour – they acted as if they were on an all expenses paid holiday…and, in the end, they were! The coach (Martin Johnson) resigned.

In 2015: they had home advantage – hopes were high. The whole of England was supporting them…but they exited the competition at the pool stages – the first time in their history. The coach (Stuart Lancaster) resigned.

So how has 2016 gone? Well, they’ve played 9, won 9…which includes:

  • achieving the Grand Slam (which they haven’t done for 13 years);
  • a 3-0 tour whitewash of Australia (a rare achievement); and
  • rising to be ranked 2nd in the World (from 8th)…just behind those mighty All Blacks.

So what’s changed? Well, England appointed a new manager (Eddie Jones)…but he has stuck with the core of previous players (those elements).

Instead of wholesale changing of the elements, he’s changed the interconnections – how they work together – resulting in players that had become labelled as ‘bad boys’, ‘past their best’ and ‘donkeys’4 being reborn, putting in controlled, consistent and herculean performances.

We don’t yet know whether the change will be long lasting…but it has most definitely been profound.

Back to the world of work: Perhaps the best known modern(ish) example of keeping the elements but changing the interconnections has to be NUMMI:

General Motor’s Fremont car plant was one of the worst performing plants in the whole industry, with high costs, low quality and terrible worker relations. GM closed the plant in 1982.

Toyota, wanting to start production in America, struck a joint-venture agreement with GM and the Fremont plant reopened as NUMMI in 1985. They rehired 85% of the original workforce (who still belonged to the Union – considered by GM as a serious problem). After taking 100s of the workers over to Japan to experience totally different thinking (involving a high degree of meaningful worker interacting), these learning’s were put into practise and the factory went on to produce the lowest cost, highest quality cars within its first year!

“Toyota took a bunch of [apparent] F Players, retrained them, put them into a great system, and magically they became superstars.” (Pfeffer and Sutton)

In short: Changing from a command-and-control management system to one that better understands systems and people will be dramatic.

Purpose

“A change in purpose changes a system profoundly, even if every element and interconnection remains the same.”

So, to switch from rugby to football: There’s an annual knockout competition in English Football, known as ‘The FA cup’. First played in 1871, it is the oldest football competition in the world. There is something rather magical about it because, given that it is open to any eligible club down to level 10 of the English football league system, it allows amateur minnows to mix it with the millionaire mega-stars…and, every now and then, create an upset – a minnow becomes a giant killer!

I searched for a game between a low-league minnow and a 1st division giant…and came up with Wrexham vs. Arsenal back in 19925. Both appeared to have had the same purpose – to win the game – but I suggest that their true purposes were rather different (and not so obviously stated).

Arsenal’s stars were probably trying to keep themselves injury free, to focus on other important matters – win their league (the 1st division) and perhaps get into their respective national sides (it was European Cup year)….and maybe avoid the embarrassment of defeat.

wrexham

In contrast, every man in the Wrexham team was aiming to become a legend!

Wrexham won 2 – 1. The crowd went nuts!

But here’s an interesting point: Wrexham, the giant killing minnow, went back to their low-league competition the following weekend and drew 0 – 0 at home with Maidstone United. Maidstone who? Exactly! The same players and staff, same coaching system, same methods of communications…different purpose!

This example, I hope, serves to illustrate the point that a (true) change in purpose will be profound, even whilst retaining the same elements and interconnections.

To the world of work: Even better than a transient change in purpose (like Wrexham’s), would be a permanent one!

…and so we finally come to that ‘profound point’ from my recent serialised post: long-term profit sharing. Bringing ‘Live Money’ into an organisation permanently changes its purpose, for the good of all…which would lead to experimentation with new interconnections…which would reinvigorate the elements (or at least naturally sort through those that fit vs. those that wish to pursue something else).

All in all – a profound change to the system. It would be…well…‘Transformed’.

To close: So, what if your ‘leader‘ changes?

Let’s say your organisation hires a new CEO – an element, but a central one. Everyone’s chattering about this ‘big change’…but will it change much?

The answer is “it depends”.

It will depend upon whether the leader understands systems and people (through education and experience, or perhaps instinctively)…because:

  • if the new leader goes on to change interconnections and, even better, the (actual) purpose then transformational change will likely occur; but
  • if that leaders attempts change merely through changing the elements (new people, new departments, a new IT system, some new products and brands….) then not much will actually change.

Changing the interconnections relates to the management system.

Changing the purpose relates to why the organisation exists, and for whom.

…and I hope I don’t need to say that a fancy new ‘purpose statement’ doesn’t, of itself, change a thing!

Footnote:

1. The word ‘Function’ is generally used for non-human systems and ‘Purpose’ for human systems.

2. Quote source: All quotes (unless otherwise stated) are taken from the excellent book ‘Thinking in Systems’ written by the late Donella Meadows (a giant to add at some point).

3. All Black players that retired after 2015 rugby World Cup:

  • Richie McCaw (148 caps): Regarded by many as the greatest ever rugby player, Most capped rugby player of all time, 3x World Rugby Player of the Year….and his accolades go on and on;
  • Dan Carter (112 caps): Regarded by many as the greatest ever no. 10 (fly half) player, Highest international test points scorer of all time (1,598), 3x World Rugby Player of the Year…and on and on;
  • Ma’a Nonu (103 caps) and Conrad Smith (94 caps). Most successful mid-field pairing;
  • …and other great players: Kevin Mealamu (132 caps), Tony Woodcock (118 caps)

4. England players: If you are a rugby fan then I’m referring to the likes of Dylan Hartley (‘bad boy’), Chris Robshaw (‘has been’) and James Haskell (‘donkey’). Sorry chaps…but this is what you had seemingly become!

5. FA Cup Giant Killing Context: Wrexham came last in League 4 the year before (i.e. came 92nd out of all the 92 league 1 – 4 clubs). At the complete opposite end of the spectrum, Arsenal won League 1 (i.e. came 1st out of these 92 clubs).

6. Explaining the main post Image: The system is made up of ropes (elements), knots (interconnections) and purpose (what it is intended to achieve)….which may be to look pretty or to hold a heavy load.

7. Clarification: This post is NOT saying that purpose is the only lever you should focus on. It is merely explaining the likely impact of working on each type of lever. We should be working on improving all three ‘kinds of things’ and, being a system, they are all related!