What is Complexity?

In my workshops, participants spend considerable time describing complexity. First off, what is it? The answer is...well...complex. Allow me to simplify it. 

One of the first points raised in our discussions is that complexity exists where there are many parts  or cogs within a system. This absolutely can be...but not necessarily so. There's more to complexity than sheer volume or number of variables.

Imagine this scenario:
A little league baseball game. Two teams playing each other for the championship. The score is close. The game is almost over. One boy standing on the mound; another in the batter's box.  What happens between these two opposing players (pitcher and hitter) will determine who wins and who loses.
According to traditional "complexity theory," this not a complex situation. Until you factor in another part of the story:
There is a mother in the stands. The pitcher and the batter are both her sons. 
This story highlights another oft-neglected aspect of complexity: interdependencebetween parts...and more specifically, antagonism between variables. So what are some of the components of complexity? Let's talk about six traits of variables within complex systems and environments:

QUANTITY. By sheer number of parts, your wife's triathlon bike is more complex than your toddler's tricycle. A modern Ferrari race car is more complex than the Ford Model A.

INTERDEPENDENCE. If I lower my grill grate towards the fire, the temperature of my cooking surface increases. Therefore, my steak is cooked more quickly (and differently on the inside too!).

COMPETITION. This is the pinnacle of interdependence. Light and darkness compete with each other. So do centralization and decentralization; generalism and specialism; social and isolation; standardization and customization

UNKNOWN. When you have to pick between cash-in-hand and what's behind Door #3, your situation has become more complex. The same goes for Texas Hold 'Em - and calculating statistics and probabilities on the fly for the next card to be turned over.

UNKNOWABLE. The unknown scares us. The unknowable should scare us more. In a bar fight or the zombie apocalypse, the future is so unpredictable that we lose the ability to decide based on a logarithm or formula. Anything can happen. 

CHANGE. Static or constant variables are easy to account for. Take an Air Force pilot engaged in an aerial dogfight -- he is constantly observing change and reacting to those changes. The same goes for a soccer goalie, making adjustments by the second. 

My full-time job is as a police officer. It seems as though every decision I make is rooted in complexity: What caliber handgun to carry? How do I place the various tools on my duty belt? Which of three cars that committed the same violation at the same time should I stop? Do I introduce myself by title and last name...or just first name? It it worth the risks to pursue the criminal in a high speed chase? Should I wait this barricaded person out...or act immediately? Should I posture and shout to gain control of the situation...or downplay it through persuasion? 

How does understanding complexity help us make better decisions? 

People and organizations that succeed in complex environments with mass quantity, interdependence or competition between, unknown, unknowable, and changing variables share this: unwavering internal understanding of fundamental values, purpose, concept, principle, and strategy. 

I can't tell that mom sitting in the little league stands who to root for. Then again, that'd be giving her a binary decision. And this situation calls for an answer that accounts for variables solved through more depth than an either-or option. 

So do many of the problems and opportunities that you and your organization face. The true leaders in your organization refuse to simplify the solutions into multiple choice. Leaders know how to wade through the waters of complexity.

So do moms. 


Lou Hayes, Jr. is a police training unit supervisor in suburban Chicago. He studies human performance, learning, and adaptive decision-making science. Follow him on Twitter at @LouHayesJr.


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