reflections on complexity conference

Magazine03 Dec 2009Frans Bieckmann

Earlier this week, I visited the very interesting conference on Complexity and Strategy. See The Broker website for a very vivid conference blog, which shows you a lot of what has been said and debated there.

On the morning of the second day, I was asked by the organizers to reflect on what I had seen and heard on the first day. Not an easy task, in the midst of a conference with so much new input.

A difficult concept like complexity needs time to mature in my head. It is in fact a totally new way of looking at things. Since I bumped into it, about two years ago, I have been digesting it, slowly progressing it in my thinking. At that time, when preparing the article by Alan Fowler for The Broker, I felt a kind of relief – in the sense that things that I had looked for and found out for myself suddenly fell in their place – and a doubt: aren’t we creating an enormous amount of dust and steam?

Since then, I read more about complexity thinking, I visited some conferences and went to a two-day Cognitive Edge seminar by Dave Snowden, who was also one of the keynote speakers at this Wageningen conference. I must say that again I was intrigued by Dave’s speech (listen to the one hour podcast of his speech), not least because he is a great performer and knows how to explain his ideas by using simple metaphors.

In those two years, my thinking about complexity has evolved. I no longer seriously doubt the general ideas and assumptions that are at the base of the concept, for example:

  • Development (or change processes in general) can only be understood and analyzed in an integrated, comprehensive and interdisciplinary manner.
  • The interactions between people and with nature creates social structures and processes, which continually change. Although the direction of this change is unpredictable, certain patterns can be found afterward.
  • Change usually takes place when a certain critical mass, a phase shift, a tipping point has been reached. The (social) equilibrium or relative stability that characterized the system or situation before this is replaced by a new balance and in new (informal) institutions.
  • Such change cannot be planned, nor pushed by external intervention alone. This does not mean that nothing can be done; it is just that the results of external interventions can not be predicted and, even with good intentions, the outcome can be negative.
  • It is very important, therefore, to recognize emerging changes: what is happening in the respective societies?

There is much more to say about complexity, but not now (maybe in future blog posts). What is important to add, though, is that we should avoid the paralysis that some people feel when faced with complexity thinking: if things are unpredictable and endlessly connected, what is there left for us to do?

First: only part of all situations in societies can be characterized as complex. That is an important distinction, and a welcome nuance to absolutists like William Easterly who, in his book ‘The White Man’s Burden’, sees no place for planning at all. See Dave Snowden’s Cynefin framework (or Jim Woodhill’s account in ‘Shaping behaviour’) for an explanation of this.

Second: even in complex situations, things can be done. We have to cope with a certain amount of uncertainty about the outcomes; we can experiment (think of the Searchers of Easterly) and see what works; we can set boundaries (read how Pepijn Jansen summarized Snowden’s example of the children’s party).

So, there is room to manoeuvre. We may not be able to steer from the top down, to plan ahead, to exert control over development processes. But what we can do instead is – and I am not sure about the choice of terms here – remove obstacles, create enabling environments and facilitate emerging changes, if they go in a positive direction.