The whole and its parts

The whole & its parts

Diving into complexity

In the past, I’ve often explained complexity with an image a friend had shared with me. It was a description that distinguished how we deal with complicated things in contrast to dealing with complex things. The idea is evident: it is possible to build an airplane, deconstruct it and rebuild it. It is also possible to make it more and more complicated by adding features to make it safer, for example. The way we deal with this situation is by developing skills. When it comes to putting spaghetti onto a plate, we’ll find it easy despite the slippery ones escaping our grip. And we will not expect to be able to repeat placing spaghetti on a plate in the same way for another person. We don’t think about the way the spaghetti will place themselves on the plate. It doesn’t have much relevance to us. We have adapted our expectations of the predictability of the task. And there is no safety issue perceived with leaving spaghetti to find their own order.

In their article “Complexity leadership: Enabling people and organizations for adaptability” Mary Uhl-Bien and Michael Arena look at complexity from a different angle.

The description they use also involves an airplane. But complex is described based on mayonnaise. Their description serves a different purpose. They look at the forces driving complexity and how these forces transform and impact the environment. Whereas the inability to reproduce something and our ease with it is there to describe how we’ve been able to learn to deal with complexity.

Mary Uhl-Bien and Michael Arena share how complexity scholars tend to describe the concept of complexity. According to them “Complexity is about rich interconnectivity.” The addition of the word ‘rich’ to interconnectivity is there to explain “that when things interact, they change one another in unexpected and irreversible ways.” In the complicated scenario of an airplane, the individual parts remain unchanged. In the complex scenario of mayonnaise, mixing the ingredients changes them. It is not possible to deconstruct mayonnaise in its ingredients once it is done.

But in our human habit of seeking security and thus predictability, much of what we do when we try to understand a situation or an environment is based on trying to deconstruct it. And often, it seems easy to attribute a cause to an effect. People will find something or someone they can blame for the result. Once they’ve found that cause, they start to feel more at ease. They see themselves as having understood what is driving the change they are subject to.

However, in today’s world, this might not be sufficient anymore.

The growing complexity we are subject to is driven by many forces. As Uhl-Bien and Arena share, “the underlying factors are greater interconnectivity and redistribution of power resulting from information flows that are allowing people to link up and drive change in unprecedented ways.”

It’s a situation in which “everyday people can drive large-scale political, social, and market disruption.” In the past, we were able to focus on leaders and their actions to have an idea of the upcoming change. Today we don’t know anymore whom to look for or what to look out for to have an idea of how our world we look like tomorrow.

We have to find new ways to deal with predictability, that is the predictability we need to feel able to deal with uncertainty. It’s only rare people who need to know how their spaghetti will be distributed on their plate to be able to eat them with pleasure.


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