Why is Complexity Useful?



Frogs are complex. I like frogs. From https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Green-leopard-frog-in-swamp.jpg

Why is complexity useful? One of my colleagues recently challenged me to answer that question. I wasn’t sure how exactly to respond. I’ve become so accustomed to approaching situations with an eye towards complexity that it has become part of my mental fabric. I take its value as a given. I thought stepping back and reflecting on it might be valuable.

Complexity informs a lot of what I do. I use it to enhance my work with software teams; I try to apply it in my approach to historical analysis; and I find myself reflecting on the Cynefin framework when I’m confronted with a problem. I find it useful in all these situations.

Software teams are complex systems. They contain individuals who play different roles and have their own independent thoughts, desires, and motivations. Each team is unique. This makes it very difficult to develop a formulaic approach to helping them improve. There are, however, certain general concepts that I’ve found to be useful.

I accept Alicia Juarrero’s idea that we cannot cause innovation, but we can create an environment where it is more likely to occur. I try to create that kind of environment by encouraging team members to broaden their perspective on their own process and to momentarily step outside of it. I change the size and composition of working groups, run them through simulations, and impose short time boxes. Usually, these help foster a new shared frame that increases receptivity to potential improvements.

Those familiar with complexity will recognize that I’m altering constraints. I tailor the environment within which the team self-organizes. This triggers a change in perspective, allowing team members to look at their shared context in new ways. It is quite useful in generating ideas that are relevant and immediately applicable.

I also think about complexity when I’m doing historical analysis, but I approach it quite differently. Instead of manipulating constraints, I try to keep in mind the broad set of potential outcomes that were possible at a given moment in time. When looking into the past, we have a tendency to focus on known outcomes and ignore the possible alternatives. This leads to an unfortunate sense of inevitability, and we can easily fall victim to retrospective coherence—the belief that historical outcomes were largely predictable, for no other reason than because they occurred. Reality is far more complex.

If I keep the broader set of possibilities in mind when examining past decisions, I develop a deeper understanding of why certain choices were made, how they were justified, and what potential alternatives were considered. This provides a richer and more valuable narrative. If I can explain past decisions in context, then I there is more opportunity to draw out salient lessons for the future.

When approaching new decisions, I find myself often considering courses of action based on the Cynefin Framework. The framework itself is described in detail in the Cognitive Edge material. I have found it very useful for thinking about how best to approach a problem. It is especially useful in a group situation, with competing perspectives about how to proceed. Pausing for a moment to consider whether or not the problem is Complex or Complicated (rarely do discussions of Obvious problems last long) can be very valuable. In Chaotic situations, there’s a need to act right away, so pausing is better once the crisis has passed.

In see a use for complexity in all these situations. The more experience I gain with using it, the more I feel like complexity is “the way things are.” It’s less a tool and more of a model for seeing the world. I find it quite useful. I suspect you will as well.