The world in which we live and work feels increasingly complex. We use phones, branded by Apple but made by a huge variety of different companies based in countries all over the world. Once on them we have the choice of so many things to do, so many ways to link with our world, through cameras, social networks, maps and even talking to people we can see on the far side of the world. There has never been access to so much data to inform the choices we make and yet the big decisions get no easier, perhaps paradoxically even harder to make. To get some things done it requires an interwoven mix of relationships between people, organisations and things to come together and produce the outcome we want. You may argue it was always thus, but the scale of complexity has grown at an ever expanding rate.

In simpler times, the knowledge necessary for catching fish, growing crops or animal husbandry was of a scale that we could hold all that was necessary within ourselves. Cesar Hidalgo refers to the knowledge we can hold as a ‘personbyte’ of information. As our level of connectedness grows the knowledge necessary to work on complex tasks soon outgrows one personbyte and instead we now need to rely on the interactions between multiple parties, events and things to get stuff done.

If I want to eat fresh fish from the North Sea at my home in Central England then on the big scale we need not to have ‘over-fished’, so we rely on international treaties and agreements. Sea currents need to bring favourable nutrients. The weather must allow the trawler fleet to operate at sea. The fish must be brought to me by boat to the dockside, through distribution hubs and logistics truck fleets to a retailer who is supplied with electricity to run the refrigerators and tills. The retailer is staffed by people who can operate the technology and handle the stock. And they too like me need feeding. And so all the circumstances start to interact, people, weather, things, networks until the complexity is more than we can behold.

And yet, for all the complexity, this chaotic mess is stable. Stuff still keeps getting done. Chaos and complexity result in stability not anarchy. It is absolutely predictable that for the immediate future the supermarket chain will continue to stock fresh fish. And it is also absolutely unpredictable as to whether there will be fresh cod there at 5pm on Tuesday next week. Complexity allows us to make very accurate predictions about the pattern of things, whilst the detail can remain unknown. This variation in circumstances is one of the characteristics we find in living systems and it gives rise to some articular circumstances that are helpful to understand.

One of the characteristics of this variation is that our actions always have unintended consequences. The things we meant to happen usually do, and, other stuff happens too, as a result of how we and our actions connect in so many different ways. The discovery pf penicillin was an unintended consequence: when Fleming left the petri dish uncleaned in the lab he was not trying to make his discovery. So unintended consequences can be good or bad, predictable or surprising. Which of these they are depends on our point of view. One thing that we can say however, is that it is this variation that is the source of adaptation. This is how living systems evolve in symbiotic relationship with their environment.

Another characteristic is that cause and effect can become quite distant in both time and space. Our love of high tech gadgets demands ever better batteries, smaller, more powerful and with longer life to keep our big bright screens working. This demand for better battery functionality drives a need for extraction of rare-earth metals from the few places in the world where they can be readily accessed at scale, usually through large open cast mines. Demand in one place drives environmental impact in another, that over time can spread and be felt far more widely. We can berate the Chinese for not mining in a more sustainable manner, yet our insatiable demand keeps driving the system.

Our usual response to problems is to provide solutions. What can be done to fix the issue? Yet complex problems may not have solutions. You can maybe make them better or worse, but they remain unresolved and stubbornly recalcitrant. So we add another expert solution and before we know it we are entangled in a mesh of treaties, agreements, standards, protocols and laws that all build upon each other to simply create more and more unintended consequences, forever distant in time and space. Expert solutions cannot resolve complex problems. they can make them better, they can also store up problems for years to come.

So if we recognise that our organisations are complex living systems themselves, it says that many of our management tools will have distinct downsides as well as any benefits. It says that our standard processes of management, to divide things into discrete business units, departments, responsibilities and accountabilities have built into them the limitations to their success. If we are to build sustainable processes that improve our businesses and the environment in which they function we need to learn to work with complexity, not control it.

Donella Meadows described the challenge of working with a living system as working with ‘irreducible uncertainty’. As we understand the nature of complexity better we realise that our ability to exert control is much less than we think. That requires a shift in thinking from the desire to see everything planned, ‘flowed’ and managed to a mindset that enables growth, variation and adaptation. It means confronting our ego, challenging the sole power we afford to our intellect. For many that is a distinctly uncomfortable thing to do.

© John Atkinson (2016)