Many people believe that complexity is just higher order complicatedness i.e. that there is a continuum and that the difference is one of degree, not type. When one considers however how very different these states are from each other, I tend to agree with Dave Snowden when he says that there are in fact phase shifts between them i.e. they are fundamentally different types of systems.
Why is this important: as long as decision-makers believe they are dealing with complicated systems, they will assume they are able to control outcomes; find solutions to problems and waste a lot of money on expert consultants to give them the “answers”. For organisations to become more resilient and sustainable, business science simply has to move beyond its Newtonian foundations towards an understanding of complexity.Sonja Blignaut – 7 Differences between complex and complicated
With all the talk about the ongoing global economic crisis and the desire to find out what caused it and how to “fix” it, I found myself wondering if this is something that we actually can figure out, especially while we are still in the middle of the situation. I turned to the Cynefin framework to help me try to make sense of what kind of problem this is that we are facing.
This is most definitely not a simple problem, in which the relationship between cause and effect is obvious.
I also don’t believe this is a complicated problem, in which the relationship between cause and effect requires analysis and/or the application of expert knowledge and the approach to solve it is characterized as Sense-Analyze-Respond. I do, however, think the decision makers early on in this situation treated this as a complicated problem. The sensing part came from the realization that their was a problem, an analysis (quickly and crudely conducted) showed that the problem was liquidity (they thought), and the response was to funnel nearly a trillion dollars to various people in the hope that this would improve said liquidity (they hoped).
Over the past couple of weeks, the decision makers seem to have gone into a chaotic state, grasping at straws because there is no apparrent relationship between cause and effect at the “system” level of the economy. They seem to be using the Act-Sense-Respond approach to trying to solve the problems; they try something to see if it works and then respond with another action so they can see if that works. Of course, you could just as easily say that they have been acting in a state of disorder, with no clue of what type of causality exists and simply making decisions based on what has always worked for them.
Which leaves complex, where I think this problem actually belongs. In a complex system, the cause and effect can only be perceived in retrospect, which is why I wonder if we will be able to figure out the cause while we are still enmeshed in the problem. However, just because we can’t yet determine how we got to this point doesn’t mean that we can’t find our way out of it. Using the approach of Probe-Sense-Respond, those making the decisions can get an idea of what’s going on and what effect possible actions would have before taking action to understand the emergent practice(s) that can help us get to the point we need to be.
One of the reasons I think it is taking a while – and will take a bit longer – for people to accept this as a complex problem is that, from a political perspective, it does not present a quick fix. It doesn’t even present the illusion of a quick fix. Even worse, those in a position to fix this have to admit (gasp!) that they don’t know how we got to this point.