Managing Complexity

The deficit showdown reflects a challenge of modern times: how can government – and society – deal with increased complexity? A new book may point the way.

Noted government observer Donald Kettl, wrote several years ago that the government of the future needs to develop three things to deal with increased complexity: knowledge-driven organizations, the agility to deal with non-routine problems, and the capacity to implement non-hierarchical solutions.

In a post I wrote back in May, I reflected on what I learned from several panels at the annual conference of the American Society for Public Administration that focused on complexity theory as it relates to government. There, I describe the roles of emergence (where individual choices become collective choices), transparency, and collaborative governance.

Well, as part of its 100th anniversary, IBM commissioned a book, Making the World Work Better, that also addresses the need to deal with complexity, but from a societal perspective. Author Jeffrey O’Brien says: “‘complex’ is a synonym for ‘unpredictable’ — or at least not easily predictable.” In complex systems, “interactions are not linear, but emergent.”

He goes on to say: “We can’t untangle complex systems in our minds, and we can’t intuit our way to a better-working world.” He says that computers can help, but “They must be augmented with perception, reasoning, cognition and intuition.”

“Making the world work better is about untangling and managing complexity,” he says, adding: “Change is easy. It happens by itself. . . Progress, on the other hand . . . is deliberate and difficult. But it’s not random.” O’Brien offers a five-part model on how to spark progress in the face of societal complexity: seeing, mapping, understanding, believing and action. He says we can master complex systems by following a discernable path:

  • Seeing. Every phenomenon is a set of data points ready to be captured, such as telescopes to see the universe.
  • Mapping. Organizes data into a meaningful map, such as a map of the solar system. “However, to be useful, any map must present data selectively.” “The power to map is the power to define.” “. . .without context, data is just noise. To be useful, it must be organized. That’s precisely what maps do. Maps tell us where we are.” A Ted Talk by ecologist Eric Berlow says you can’t look just at individual links. You need to look at the broader system to seen the sphere of influence of other links. And good visualization tools (aka maps!) allow you to step back, when looking at complex problems, and they give you a chance to find simple answers.
  • Understanding. The basis for describing and anticipating complex behaviors, such as the laws governing astrophysics and rocket propulsion. The goal in industry is to model customer behavior to make predictions in real time, to anticipate future behaviors.
  • Believing. Believing is about inspiring the confidence that progress is possible, such as sending three astronauts to the moon and back.
  • Acting. Enabling forward thinkers to design, build, adapt, optimize and automate the world’s systems, such as the Apollo 11 team of scientists and engineers. “Complex systems aren’t static. They react to our interventions.”

O’Brien concludes, optimistically: “We have the tools. We know the path.” I’m not so sure I see such certainty based on what I see, but O’Brien’s framework does seem to help shine a light on the path!

Graphic Credit (a cloud of l00,000 starlings in flight): Daily Echo

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Victoria A. Runkle

I first read David Eave’s “Depression and Decline” blog; then this. This provides some idea on how to get from “here to there.” It is insightful, but also requires some courage. Courage is missing. Thank you for this. I am going to see if I can download this book.

Mark Hammer

Solutions are complex. Problems need not be. And even if they start out that way, they only become soluble when we make them simpler.

Many years ago, I had the good fortune to sit and chat with Carl Sagan for a few minutes. “How can you even begin to think about space and the universe?” I asked. He replied that eventually, one begins to think of space much like a neighbourhood. “Keep going until you hit Alpha Centauri, hang a left and you can’t miss it”.

I think most great thinkers have sufficient mastery over their content domain (and that is different from Seinfeldian mastery of one’s domain) that they can nearly always translate what appears as complex to others into a simpler model, akin to a phenomena that is highly familiar. Making the complex simple is often a case of making the novel familiar.

The other aspect is that, as we get older and wiser, we are more likely to apply dialectical analysis to problems, summarizing them as the balancing of two mutually opposing themes. Of course, the trick to simplifying problems is to be able to achieve the mental distance that lets you see those themes.

John Kamensky

Hi Bill – IBM hasn’t called things “wicked problems” (that seems to be the purview of academics!) but I’d think the Watson Jeapordy Challenge probably ranks right up there! It’s “Smarter Planet” initiative also seems to address what the academics have called wicked problems, by looking at communities as interconncted, instrumented systems and not isolated elements.

Victoria – I know the IBM book is available on Amazon, and I’d like to believe it is available as an e-book, too!

Mark – Must have been cool to talk with Carl Sagan. I’ve a son who is a physics major and I can attest to the fact that our conversations have convinced me that there really ARE complex problems!!