Complexity management for leadership and innovation

Here are a few tips on how to lead better, or innovate better, by tackling complexity head-on. Better still, here’s just one core reason why most solutions we produce to deal with complex issues, mostly fail.  Also, you’ll find pointers on how to do better.

A complex issue is one that has several actors, each interacting with the other, affecting the final outcome.

When two atoms of hydrogen mix with one on oxygen, water is produced. In this case, there is no other influence  other than atoms of hydrogen and oxygen,that bears on the reaction. So, this is not a complex issue. But consider another issue that happened in Yellowstone national park, USA. The rangers there were goaded by the local ranchers to eliminate the wolf from Yellowstone as they endangered the safety of the cattle. This removal of the wolf saved the cattle but did not limit itself to just that. With the wolf gone, the elk population burgeoned which stripped the leaves off most of the trees along the riverbanks.  Without the leaves, the trees died.  That caused the Beaver population to die. Without the Beaver dams, riverbanks eroded and flood followed.  This explains complexity which is, as I said in the beginning – ‘Any issue that has several actors, each interacting with the other.’

So, where does some find complexity?  In many places. As a pointer, issues of business and of human interaction are mostly complex issues. Anything which has an eco-system, is complex.

Why do most solutions we produce to deal with issues with complexity, mostly fail? They fail because we have got used to reductionism,  that is, reducing a whole into its parts and then dealing with each part in isolation.  That causes us to miss out the effects that come through solely because of the links of that part with the other sub-parts. The whole is larger than the sum of its parts.

Reductionism came about by our communication system based on words and symbols. When we coined the word ‘sweet’ to describe the sensation that came to us when we had sugar, it described a specific sensation but not exactly what we felt when we first had sugar. The two are different.

Similarly, a theory pinpoints a phenomenon but may not pinpoint what one is seeing. This is particularly so if the theory is based on some authority, rather than on something one is sensing directly through ones senses. Anything that comes through more from an ‘intelligent reasoning’, rather than from direct observation of senses, is suspect. An if it clearly contradicts what the senses are telling us, it is definitely wrong.

Till the Copernicus theory came into being, people believed that the world is the center of the universe. That was the ‘theory’ till then because authorities said so. But Galileo said that it was the Sun that was the center of the universe. He, however, did not say so based on a new theory but on direct observations by his senses. He actually saw things from his telescope and only then said what he did.

Anything you do based on some theory may fail. What you do based on what your senses perceive directly is likely to succeed. Analytical theories make is possible to ‘manage’ knowledge better but not ‘understand’ it better.

A dangerous theory hatched in someone’s mind, rather than on direct observation by senses, can be very dangerous. At one time, people believed that it is stress that caused peptic ulcers but direct observation showed the world that is Hileobacter pylori that causes them.

Rely on what your senses are telling you. The senses never take in information as provided by parts but take in the whole picture. The senses do not reason in words and images which are always different than the real thing.

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3 responses to “Leadership and Innovation by dealing better with Complexity”

  1. […] Nation building, society building, war etc are complex issues. For one thing, complex issue do not lend themselves to reductionism in which you could deal with issues in isolation. There is an emergent quality of the system as a whole. This has been described in details elsewhere. […]

  2. Mike says:

    Optical illusions deceive the senses. Most of our senses can be tricked via special situations. That’s where the various theories of how our senses work can help. When you know a situation is likely to deceive, you’re less likely to make the mistake. That’s why Physics has both theoretical and experimental branches. The 2 are much more powerful when taken together.

    • alok says:

      True, Mike. Well brought out. Senses can indeed be tricked. But, the number of times when someone or something is out to consciously trick you, are rare. It makes better sense to mostly believe what the senses tell you directly and accept the risk mistakes, rather then mostly be mistaken due to not listening to your senses.

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