The whole and its parts

The whole & its parts

Simple, Complicated, Complex, Chaotic

In a recent conversation with a friend, we found ourselves thinking about the impact of individual measures as they transform industries. One of our questions was how to reconcile animal welfare and social injustice when changing the rules for livestock breeding.

While we didn’t come to a conclusion on the topic we did take a few different approaches to investigate the problem.

The article one of us had read created the impression of a simple cause-and-effect relationship. It described transforming the rules used in the industry would lead to social unrest. They expected that prices would climb above a certain level making it hard for some parts of the population to buy these goods.

The article seemed to imply that consequences were predictable. It also assumed that the order of things was simple enough to be described. What it didn’t consider was the possibility that a right answer may not be available.

It’s one of the challenges leaders frequently face. The demands they have to deal with depend on the given context, one that will vary widely depending on the existing predictability and order.

In describing a cause and effect relationship, the authors of the article assumed the situation to be a complicated problem. What they didn’t see, was that it actually is a complex one.

The distinction between both types of problems is, that with the complicated problem there will always have at least one right answer. Building an airplane for example qualifies as a complicated problem. It requires an expert to know how to put all the pieces together until the plane can get onto the runway.

Something different, however, is impacting a large ecosystem like an ocean. It is in constant flux. Whenever species settle where they haven’t been previously it isn’t clear how they will transform life in their new environment. The Yellowstone national park is another example. As an experiment, they reintroduced wolves. The experiment led to an astonishing result as the wolves stabilized the elk population in the park. It is only after acting that they figured out that it had been a right answer. Which they confirmed with research analyzing the evolution of the last 25 years.

An ecosystem most often represents a complex problem. It relates to an unordered environment with unclear predictability. In contrast to this, complicated problems will relate to ordered environments with some predictability.

The leadership task is very different in both cases.

To complicate matters further, there are more than 2 types of environment. In the ordered area we can also look at simple environments which can be addressed with best practices. In the unordered environment, we’ll also find chaotic environments. These may for example appear whenever a crisis emerges. At the beginning, there is so little knowledge about the situation that there are actually no right answers. Right answers are the ones that work and are found fast enough. It’s an environment with little time to think and a high need for action.

Taking the current pandemic we started out with a simple problem that quickly led to a chaotic environment. In the meantime, we’ve reached a complex environment involving complicated situations. The better able leaders become at assessing the environment they are acting in, the better their ability to lead as needed.


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