The first look Complexity Addressed From On High taking its perspective from the air was limited because it was too abstract and conceptual in its approach. The perspective of the second post, Categorizing, Controlling, Conquering Complexity as Chaos (Wrong Choice) was from behind the barricades of day to day, under fire, management but again was limited because it failed to realize both the inescapable reality of complexity and the creative potential of complexity. So some synthesis of these two perspectives or a third alternative would seem to be warranted.
One alternative perspective on complexity, besides the one previously provided by the Economist Intelligence Unit (pdf), was provided by past HBR articles including Embracing Complexity An Interview with Michael J. Mauboussin by Tim Sullivan and Learning to Live with Complexity by Gökçe Sargut and Rita Gunther McGrath. Both of these HBR articles from 2011 helped to set the framework for the question asked by Richard Straub. Their perspectives did embrace complexity.
These articles moved away from a more traditional organization-as-machine approach to one that was more organic and less top down hierarchical in managing institutions, particularly ones that dealt with complex environments. The question considered by this blog in the previous Categorizing, Controlling, Conquering Complexity as Chaos (Wrong Choice) post was the same as Richard Straub's, why some managers had failed to learn the lessons put forward by Mauboussin, Sargut and McGrath. The answer is that they chose to do so, presumably because embracing complexity was not seen as being in their self-interest.
As mentioned before on this blog, the need to revisit a previously presented concept and revise it so it becomes clearer arises from time to time. This happened after having nearly completed the first draft of this post concerning an idea initially stated in the New Community Paradigms Thinking Requires Systems Thinking post that government institutions address the complex challenges facing communities by developing complicated processes.
What may be a more precisely stated concept is that government institutions use complicated processes to address the challenges arising from complex environments. There is the community, which is a complex entity, and the larger environment in which it exists, which is also complex, and then there is the government institution, which is at best complicated but in a fashion designed to meet the needs of the community within its larger environment. Any change to the complex environment, which is difficult to predict and even more difficult to control, would create a corresponding change in the challenges facing the community to which the government institution’s complicated organizational process must then adapt.
There are private sector companies that succeed in doing this. They reconfigure to move along with their target audience, not only changing when they do but also anticipating changes in their users’ environment. These companies are feeding off of the complexity arising from their two way interaction with their customers to create new innovative solutions.
Public Sector organizations though, particularly at a local level, are often not able to do this as well. Instead, reacting to protect their status they end up imposing unseen additional layers of complicated or closed processes that are essentially subconscious from an organizational perspective that in time become culturally implicit. It is a means of maintaining power by becoming entrenched as a system both operationally and culturally. This is why so many local city halls or other public sector organizations prefer the more traditional organization as machine approach in which complexity is seen as chaos and why community engagement in some communities remains stuck at the bottom rungs of Arnstein’s Ladder.
Taking the complexity as chaos approach, many managers endeavor to control or conquer it using Occam's razor, the principle of parsimony as their first principle. The more organic approach to management espoused by the HBR articles recognizes that this does work for linear processes in a world constricted by smaller budgets and shorter deadlines for a time. Real community building, however, which is becoming as much a requirement for consumer businesses as for governance of our communities, is not a linear process.
Still keeping with Occam’s razor, while it may be true that the solution with the fewest assumptions could be the most viable this is not absolute. It certainly does not mean that the first such solution will always be the most optimal especially when the needs of a large group of people must be considered. An Online Stanford University course on creativity demonstrated that the resonance and viability of a solution of the first order or iteration usually turned out to be less optimal than that of a third or fourth order solution. A similar Stanford course on Design Thinking emphasizes creating an over abundance of solutions, even imaginary ones, to arrive at the most effective and optimal. Depending unquestioningly upon the simplest first solution only because it has the fewest assumptions may not go deep enough into a situation and the environment in which it occurs to create the best or most innovative approach to the challenge.
A second principle of complexity as chaos approach is that the authority of wielding Occam’s razor should be given to only a few supposedly visionary leaders with a cadre of obedient keeping-in-line managers behind them. This is very much in keeping with an autocratic city manager style of community management found in many communities. This is the management-as-machine Maginot line of defense against complexity, uncertain conditions and risks all of which left unchecked could mean chaos. An organic approach to addressing complexity asks whether these factors are really interrelated on a causal basis or merely correlated, therefore requiring a different approach?
Uncertainty and risk are undoubtedly a part of the business landscape, and therefore also for the public sector, even though we too often pretend that they are not, but they are not the same as complexity. Instead they arise because of a lack of knowledge concerning a complex situation or environment. Any resulting gap in relevant information could be a problem and could create a chaotic situation but complexity in reality exists at the edge of chaos providing a potential means of change. (This does not mean that omniscient powers will eliminate complexity or make it precisely predictable.)
Complexity is admittedly difficult to manage because it is difficult to see the myriad of interrelationships within the environment or ecosystem that makes complexity a reality from any specific singular perspective. Individual managers, using complicated processes which includes systems of bureaucratic management, may be able to know specific components in a defined span of control or over a defined period of time.
It is impossible though for anyone to know the total information of a substantially complex system. The complexity as chaos approach wrongly assumes that the uppermost levels of an organization are unilaterally able to dictate the organization’s response to complexity. The organic approach asks whether it is actually necessary for any individual manager, at any level, to always know the entire system or is it the system that needs to 'know' the entire system? This means far less top down control and a far greater need for trust which makes some very uncomfortable.
This brings up other differences in approaches between restricted complicated systems and systems adopting practices that are more coherent regarding complexity. With a complicated process the cumulation of different managerial perspectives happens more in the aggregate over time with top management then making decisions about taking a specific approach usually after the fact, while with an organic approach to complexity there is often some form of synthesis between the community and its environment to which the organization adapts more in line with real time with managers facilitating the process.
A third principle of complexity as chaos is that complexity is seen as not having any potential value either for the institution or for the individual manager except in its removal. Individual managers taking a complexity as chaos approach are incentivized to only propose safe known solutions or predetermined approaches in addressing complexity to avoid career suicide. Office politics then becomes a more important game than competition on the field, a situation that can be made all the worse in the public sector arena where the presumed leadership can be based on political gamesmanship.
The truth according to the more organic managerial approach is that complexity properly addressed through innovation, particularly disruptive innovation, can add tremendous value. It is a source of creativity and innovation in an advanced economy. The more traditional’ approach, particularly in the public sector, provides no real path towards innovation in any sense of the word as even forms of sustaining innovation can be hampered and more disruptive forms of innovation have little chance of occurring.