Complexity is a Measurement Problem

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In today’s ecosystem of articles and books about innovation, management, governance, policy, and technology, there is a sentence that is becoming a standard:

“Leaders must manage an increasingly complex environment.”
And the author can point to anything – Moore’s Law, economic interconnectedness, citizen participation in policy-making, environmental externalities – and make their point. And they’re right. The consulting company KPMG surveyed business leaders, who put complexity at the top of their agenda. But it’s only half the story, and it’s dangerous to treat the issue of complexity as being only about it increasing.
Complexity is a Measurement Problem

Saying “The world is increasingly complex” is almost like saying “Planets just keep popping into existence” and ignoring advancements in telescopes. The world was never exactly simple, and much of the complexity we see now was always there; it was our ignorance that led us to oversimplify things (see: What We Don’t Know). But over time, we’ve developed far better lenses with which to see the world. From letters, to printing presses, to photojournalism, to Twitter. It’s simply possible to be far more aware of what is happening outside your immediate circles, and how actions reverberate.
When framed as a complexity problem, the rational response is managing complexity and attempting to anticipate its trajectory. But when also framed as a measurement problem, the response includes assessing whether or not you actually understand all of the current complexity in the first place, whether you’re missing pieces still, and whether you need to re-examine the tools you use to understand your environment.

What if the world is still far more complex than we realize? Should our effort go into managing the complexity that we know about, or building better telescopes?

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Mark Hammer

While not wishing to make light of it, the world of complexity is…well, complex, and exists at multiple levels.

At one level, there is the complexity of the elements – the things and phenomena that better telescopes and microscopes allow us to see. But at another level, there is the complexity of systems we sit in the middle of. Often, those who make decisions within legislative or bureaucratic side of government are like the residents of Who-ville (from Horton Hears a Who), existing within a microcosm that appears so complicated to them that “surely here could be nothing beyond this“. How does one make decisions about the resourcing, coordination, and maintenance of all those microcosms? And am I, sitting here, making decisions about these complicated little specs, merely yet another level of spec, blind to my own circumstance?

I often hear chest-poking hypotheses from people about government expenditures and waste. The complaints often turn to comments about “my tax dollars”. And I wonder to myself: “How on earth can anyone be aware of all that transpires in their agency?”. How can those in charge even be cogniscent of all priorities, let alone be satisfied that they are all balanced? How the dickens does one work out a budget for a nation, involving an exercise that is more sentient than merely moving a half-dozen black boxes around like someone playing a street-hustler game of which-cup-is-the-pea-under.

One cannot get too involved/engaged in each little Who-ville spec, and still retain the bigger picture. Yet one cannot be so disengaged from the realities of those little spec-universes that moving the boxes/cups around crushes them in the process.

In some respects, the battle cry of those who action for “smaller government” is not so much a simple argument to curtail waste (though that is certainly part of it), but rather a deep-seated primal desire for things to just be…simpler and more comprehensible to mere mortals. If only we could just make the whole of government be juuuussssstttt this teeny little Who-ville, and nothing more.

Kent Aitken

Horton Hears a Who is a really interesting analogy for this, actually. Someone commented over on that one of the problems with complexity is that we’re losing our comfort and self-assurance that we can actually manage things.

As an aside, have you been catching Mike Moffatt’s comments and Op-Eds about the iPod Tax?

Long story short, people in finance said one thing about a tariff, and people in the border services agency thought another. Key word being “people”; government departments have not yet become unified hive minds. Moffatt says it raises “red flags”. Personally, I think it’s a jawdroppingly predictable (and temporary) situation, born of how hard it is to imagine every impact of complex legislation on emerging technology, and the fact that government is still made up of people. His last line in the piece bemoans the complexity of government.

It’s striking a balance between minimizing externalities/maximizing partnerships, and analysis paralysis. Or, working out useful systems for navigating that balance. Without getting to reports entitled “Actions Needed to Evaluate the Impact of Efforts to Estimate Costs of Reports and Studies.”

Which is a real thing that happened.

Thank you for weighing in.

Mark Hammer

That iPod tax thing is funny. And I mean “Who’s on first?” funny.

The thing we all too often forget is that regulatory enforcement officers of any kind, be they folks who check parking meters, folks who check baggage, folks who check emissions levels, or folks who check customs and tariffs, are not really supposed to exercise judgment. They are expected to be conscientious, certainly, but situational judgments are supposed to be beyond the perimeter of their domain as much as is possible. They are not selected and hired to exercise judgment, nor are they compensated for their skill in judgment. They are supposed to take a regulatory template and apply it consistently and rigorously. They are not expected to factor into account that you were all intent on getting back in time to feed the parking meter, but the moron ahead of you in line was taking forever and the other checkout clerk hadn’t returned from break yet.

That all works well in principle, but as the world becomes more complex (and the determination of the iPod as a computer device…or not, is a good example), and clear yes/no distinctions between things are not so easy to make anymore, the question arises of what sort of system and capacity one needs to deal with such complexity. One can set up consulting or arbitration bodies (tribunals) to address those decisions above the pay-grade of front-line people, but they can quickly become saturated with cases and decisions to render, many of them not really pleasing anybody. You can create capacity at the front line, but that implies selecting, hiring, and training people to have Solomonic wisdom about the domain n question…and that takes time, money, effort and considerable patience.

It also demands a different understanding of accountability. Which is another paradox. Whenever we hear of some scandal or otherwise outraging or perplexing occurrence in the public sector, the phrase most often bandied about is “get to the bottom of…”. We never hear anyone say “get to the top of…”. On the one hand, we want to understand the minute details of how that thng managed to occur. Yet at the same time, we harbour assumptions that directives from above must have played some sort of role. Yet at the same time again, we implicitly understand that those who issued those directives were probably so far removed from the end-action as to not really grasp the implications of the directives when applied by front-line people in the face of complexity.