“Any intelligent fool can make things bigger, more complex, and more violent. It takes a touch of genius — and a lot of courage to move in the opposite direction.”
― E.F. Schumacher

There is sometimes a tendency when thinking about and planning for future activity to want to make solutions more complex than they need to be. Whether this is due to a desire to forecast the ‘right’ direction or because understanding of the present day situation is lacking, or (more cynically) to sell a solution that only ‘you’ can deliver, more often than not the most complex answers to future problems/opportunities are not likely to be those that will work.

I have noticed in my work and teaching that to successfully wrestle with the future is to think through the complexity to identify the simplicity on the other side. If the situation is already complex, adding more complexity will not help. If the situation is complicated, then making it complex will not assist you either. Knowing the difference is a key part of foresight activity. Too often situations that are very complicated are described as complex as a way of ducking responsibility for the hard decisions or ceding of control that may need to occur to move to an outcome. Sometimes, complex situations are only partly appreciated so are considered complicated, and solutions generated which won’t work and then don’t work much to the dismay of those developing them.

complicated = not simple, but ultimately knowable.

complex = not simple and never fully knowable. Just too many variables interact.

When describing the thinking process of engaging with complexity, I like to use the metaphor of  knotted piece of wool, when you have been worrying the knot – yanking this bit, pulling that – you are actually making the knot smaller and harder to open up. If you use soft fingers and gently prise the wool threads apart you can sometimes find that piece that when you gently tug at it little by little, you can feel the release of the knot. It is that moment of release we are looking for in complex situations. The point at which you or the group you are working with, feels that this could be an ‘in’ on the issue at hand.

So, by ‘thinking through the complexity’, I do not mean coming up with the solution, rather the process through which a response to the complexity can be identified. Often the release point is a question asked with a beginner’s mind at just the right point in the discussion. Staying open to not knowing the answer is helpful as the situation moves as we shift our perspectives. Asking the people directly involved can also be very useful, rather than guessing what they might think.

For instance, when considering the future services to meet a complex set of human needs, the usual response is to study the needs, forecast the needs into the future and then design some interventions for the people with the needs to experience. At some point, the people with the needs are asked for their evaluation (maybe) of the service delivered and this information is fed back into the service review. More often than not the service does not need the needs as the needs have changed in response to the service intervention.

The simplicity on the other side of complexity way may be to empower the people with the needs to solve their own problems. This solution allows the people with the complexity to identify the point of loosening for them, then indicate where the points of intervention might be and assist the development of ongoing solutions. They are engaged in the process of change, not victims or clients of it. This will usually be an iterative process of trying things and seeing what works, rather than gold plating a solution from the beginning. There are many reasons why this doesn’t happen (usually due to a need for control on the part of a bureaucracy) but there are also some fabulous examples of where it has worked. The problem is that usually the people who need to be given control of the issue are not the funders of whatever change process has been started, and the lack of control over how funds are spent becomes the issue. The funders must also be in the room and act as part of the system to bring about change.

I echo the work of Otto Scharmer and Meg Wheatley, the people in the system are the system and once they own this responsibility they are able to engage with it and change it.

P.S. I was sent a copy of a speech given in August 2012 by Andrew G Haldane, Executive Director, Financial Stability and member of the Financial Policy Committee of the Bank of England. He makes the case for simpler rather than more complex regulation of the global financial system.

 Modern finance is complex, perhaps too complex. Regulation of modern finance is complex, almost certainly too complex. That configuration spells trouble. As you do not fight fire with fire, you do not fight complexity with complexity. Because complexity generates uncertainty, not risk, it requires a regulatory response grounded in simplicity, not complexity.