The complex is not complicated

I wrote a piece for my Doctor’s Note newsletter about the difference between the complex and the complicated. The central point is that if we don’t tackle complexity with complex thinking, we’re doomed to oversimplify and produce simplistic solutions that fail.

You can view the original on Medium if you prefer, or carry on reading below:

Connected Ecosystems

Service Designers have earned a justifiable reputation for wanting to boil the ocean, sometimes to the frustration of clients and managers who want to break things down into simple chunks that can be easily solved and measured. One the key methods that service design uses, service blueprinting, actively does the opposite — its intent is to show how everything in an ecosystem is connected to everything else and make those connections visible.

The problem is that some things really are complex—climate change and the Circular Economy, society and culture, Brexit. Complex problems need to be tackled in their complexity, usually by zooming in and out of different levels of complexity. The industrial, Taylorist mindset of breaking complicated things down into discreet tasks so that unskilled workers can carry them out them fails to tackle complexity.

An excellent description of why this is came from an unexpected source recently — Jacob Lund Fisker’s book, Early Retirement Extreme: A Philosophical and Practical Guide to Financial Independence (and, no, I probably won’t retire early, but the systems thinking in the book is interesting, especially about having a diversity of skills under your belt and considering the future of work). Lund Fisker writes:

Nonlinearity is inherently much harder to deal with than linearity. In fact, a tremendous amount of effort goes into linearizing problems to make them understandable and solvable. There are several methods. The first method is to reduce the degrees of freedom by reducing the number of objects and the number of connections between the objects, thus making the problem easier to understand. This simplifies the problem, but it runs the risk of eliminating degrees of freedom that are essential to the problem. The solution to the simplified problem is not necessarily the solution to the original problem. Furthermore, the simpler problem does not show the richness of solutions of the original problem.

Complex versus complicated

Complex are very different to complicated problems, as Rick Nason describes in the MIT Sloan Review excerpt from It’s Not Complicated: The Art and Science of Complexity for Business, but the two terms are used interchangeably, resulting in the wrong mindset being applied to the wrong problem.

The solutions to complicated problems don’t work as well with complex problems, however. Complex problems involve too many unknowns and too many interrelated factors to reduce to rules and processes. A technological disruption like blockchain is a complex problem. A competitor with an innovative business model — an Uber or an Airbnb — is a complex problem. There’s no algorithm that will tell you how to respond.

The question, “What do we need to do to increase our innovation in the face of disruption?” is often tacitly framed as, “What’s the procedural rulebook for innovation?” Innovation playbooks and frameworks can be helpful, but they will fail if the organisational mindset doesn’t embrace and make way for the complex.

Complex systems are nuanced and require a nuanced approach. The one thing that will not work is a rigid, rules-based, complicated approach. Taking the time to make an accurate judgment about the type of management problem at hand helps to avoid the arrogance of complicated thinking. Complicated thinking leads managers to think that they are doing something purposeful when in reality they are not, and in fact they are likely doing more harm than good.

It is this difference that service and strategic designers are usually trying to explain to clients and stakeholders new to design, often referring back to Horst Rittel’s concept of Wicked Problems:

[A] social or cultural problem that is difficult or impossible to solve for as many as four reasons: incomplete or contradictory knowledge, the number of people and opinions involved, the large economic burden, and the interconnected nature of these problems with other problems[^WickedProblems].

The psychological challenge of design thinking

One of the biggest unspoken issues about the rise of design thinking in the corporate world is the psychological challenge it presents to those with a bias towards analytical and procedural mindsets. Most other new management techniques build upon those existing skills, but design thinking—or, more accurately, abductive reasoning coupled with creative ideation, selection and iteration—makes those people beginners again, since most people are not taught this in secondary school. (It’s also one of the reasons most people still draw like 10 year-olds — it’s about the age they stopped learning and practicing how to draw).

Being an expert exposed as a beginner is a challenge to the ego and psyche, especially if status in the organisation is pegged to expertise, as is most often the case. Nason again:

Unlike in a situation of total randomness or chaos, where any action of management is as good as any other, complexity implies that there is a level of control available; but it is not complete control, and the situation is not completely manageable. This mode of management can be quite stressful if the manager has a complicated mindset that abhors ambiguity and uncertainty.

Most of the resistance to design in all its forms that I’ve experience in enterprises is not methodological per se—this would be more of a technical misalignment. The resistance is the very personal, human anxiety that occurs when encountering the unknown and feeling out of control. I wish this was openly named more often and it’s something that I try to do when I teach design in large organisations.

Learning also requires discomfort with the unknown, so it can be an excellent vehicle for discussing the issue. I realised that I’ve moved from design things for people to designing organisations back to a focus on people. It’s always people and personalities that stymie creativity in organisations, most often unwittingly, since the blocking is rooted in a unrecognised fear reaction. It’s often worse in organisations full of A-grader people, because there are plenty of ways of intellectualising the fear.

“Smart people,” writes Nason, “— those who are very efficient in their knowledge of facts and very fast in applying that knowledge — do very well with complicated thinking. Complexity thinkers, however, think differently.”

A complexity mindset is a creative mindset. It focuses on what can be, rather than what is. A complexity mindset is an imaginative mindset, as different from a complicated mindset as the difference between thinking and knowing. Thinking is a creative process, while knowing is an information-retrieval process.

This is why analytically and procedural biased people often ask what the “right” clusters are in an affinity map, for example, or how we know what the correct design idea is. Or why procurement departments impossibly ask for the outcomes and deliverables of each two-week sprint in a three-month project (this really happened). Being told that this is the wrong question to be asking either does not make sense to a complicated mindset or is very discomforting. Nobody wants to appear to be incompetent and it takes confidence to admit to being a novice or outside your comfort zone.

Cogito ergo sum est mendacium

The famous “I think therefore I am” statement by Descartes is a lie and the word thinking in “design thinking” is problematic. As phenomenologists argue, we experience the world through our bodies, of which the brain is an inseparable part. Even artificial intelligences are frequently aware of their environments and take them into account.

The thinking part of design thinkings suggests you can just do this piece of thinking up front and then proceed with the usual industrial process and innovation will ensue, but most of the thinking in design happens whilst design doing, through reflective practice. Reflective practice is a cadence of doing and thinking, often both together. (I’ll write more on this soon).

Adapting versus improving

“To succeed with complexity, an organization must also be continually adapting,” writes Nason, which is what Fjord would call a Living Business. The distinction between adapting versus improving is crucial and another pair of terms that are often conflated. Kodak continued to improve film technology, points out Nason, but did not adapt to digital, leading to its demise.

I’m not suggesting that complexity thinking is de facto better than complicated thinking and that the latter should be abolished. There will always be a need for people to apply complicated thinking. The point is that the last 150 years have biased companies and, more recently, public institutions towards complicated thinking. Design thinking bolted onto the front of procedural thinking is not complexity thinking.

You need both, especially in an age where most of the big problems are wicked, complexity problems or problems of “interdependence,” as Dr Anne Galloway describes it. If we fail to tackle complexity with complex thinking, we’re doomed to oversimplify and produce simplistic solutions that fail. In the case of climate change, that’s not something we have time to do