Can’t get him out of my head…

… Dave Snowden that is.

This paper of his – Sense Making in a Complex and Complicated World – which I blogged a few days ago – is really on my mind. In particular I’ve been thinking of the distinction between two domains of the four he describes the knowable and the complex. The knowable represents I suppose, things that are complicated – if you study them for long enough, you can figure out what to do to achieve a result. The complex represents things where all that analysis could be a waste of time, better to try things and see what happens.

I see a lot of people (myself included, and especially Dr Rant) struggling to deal with the complex as if it’s complicated. I can easily get into analysis and thinking without actually doing stuff (see how I felt on this day for instance) when it would be better to try a few things and see what happens. Curt Rosengren seems to get this in his advice to keep your feet moving. Another manifestation is to rush to judgement and categorise things as good or bad without allowing for ambiguity or context.

Far too many people don’t get this, and waffle about metrics, obsessing with narrow measures and making dubious correlations to “prove” their latest ideas “work”, without looking at the broader context. In Britain, our Health Service and education system have been plagued with the very worst kind of shallow target setting and performance measurement. Marketing is awash with dreary mechanistic models that reduce the subtle wonders of human relationships to things like “value drivers” (they sound pretty horrid, don’t they!). This – to my mind – is part of a desperate effort to run away from the complex by treating it as merely complicated, coralling it into the familiar domain of the knowable, the safe hunting ground of the Experts who Know What To Do who delight in its complications as it allows them to seem so clever.

Snowden says (I think) that it’s fine to treat complicated things as complicated but not to try to deal with complexity the same way. Spot on. (Or do I mean, approximately right?)

6 thoughts on “Can’t get him out of my head…

  1. mrG

    I demand that Dave Snowden may, or may not, be right! 🙂

    or to pull another quote from English Lit:

    “God, grant me the strength to change the things I can, the peace to face the things I cannot, and the wisdom to know the difference between the two!”

    The horror of functions with no derivatives is a well-known problem in the hard sciences, and it’s maybe a testimony to rampant innumeracy in the general population that we see so many dilligent and perhaps well-meaning attempts to force the wrong class of solution on a problem. As Richard Bandler observed, “When we do something and it works, we do it again. When it fails to work, we do it again … HARDER!”

    The mystic issue is that the Universe defies our comprehension by its immensity: Systems which appear complex are sometimes only complicated beyond the grasp of our tools, other seemingly straightforward processes are rife with chaos — as soon as you draw a circle around any set of data, you notice that the edges leak.

    This was the great failure of the 1980’s vintage “expert system” where we discovered (as did Bandler in his domain) that experts very often don’t know how they arrive at their solutions, they just, as we say, “Have the knack”.

    To counter this phenomenon of unknowing, AI research turned to non-linear processing, neural networks and genetic algorithms, and with some success in small domains such as OCR, but still, largely, AI failed to deliver.

    Nature, on the other hand, does not divide her problems thus. Nature does not pause to compute the digits of pi before casting yet another bubble up on the surf, she just does it.

    Creatures, including ourselves, do not use one method or another in solving life-skill problems, we apply everything, all at once, in parallel, keeping the goal-state as the guide (the “star to steer by”) and thus our fingers reach directly to the door-handle despite the incredible complexity of the arm muscle coordinations which must happen to make it so.

  2. Lee Bryant

    Hmmm …. yes …. I am also interested in Dave’s paper and I enjoyed (and blogged) his recent keynote at KM Europe in Amsterdam.

    The great bit about what he is saying, from a bizniz POV, is that we can intervene in complex systems using the simple tools of boundaries and attractors without necessarily wanting or being able to fully analyse its causality.

    Going back to your examples of the NHS and education, the problem that more money cannot solve is basically an absence of energy/momentum. This is a lesson for any budding boundary or attractor builders: if you intervene too heavy-handedly, you will destroy or block the energy that keeps a system moving, or you may induce conditions of turbulence which leads to energy dissipation. In the NHS, the mechnical taking apart and putting back together approach has sucked all the energy out of the system to such an extent that billions of pounds extra investment now produce miniscule productivity improvements.


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