Recognising Complexity

Characteristics of Complexity

These characteristics are offered by Jean Boulton, author of Embracing Complexity, and provide a useful grounding from which we can understand and work.
    Systemic: the world cannot be understood through taking apart the bits and understanding them separately. Factors work together synergistically, that is, the whole is different from the sum of its parts. We live as part of patterns of relationships.
    Emergent, uncertain, but not random: although the future does not follow smoothly from the past, neither is what happens random. The world is neither chaotic nor predictable but somewhere in between.
    Episodic: things are becoming, developing, and changing, but change seems to happen in fits and starts. The intriguing thing about the world is that on the surface patterns of relationships and structures can seem almost stable for long periods of time, although micro-changes may be going on under the surface. And then radical change can happen suddenly and new patterns of relationships can self-organize and some completely new features that could not have been predicted may emerge.
    Path-dependent: history matters and the sequence of events is a key factor in giving shape to the future.
    Sensitive to context: one size does not fit all, and the way change happens and the way the future emerges is dependent on the detailed and particular events and patterns of relationships and particular features in the local situation. By generalizing we risk throwing out the very information that sheds light on why things happen and what might happen next.

Principles to Guide Action in Complexity

These principles are also offered by Jean Boulton in Embracing Complexity, and provide a useful shorthand for how to optimise action whilst working in complexity
    History matters: take time to investigate the relevant history/background of the market/country/organisation
    Build relationships: in this way, you learn about the past, shape approaches that are more likely to work and also are owned by people, and get more information about what is working and what is not
    Weave together, with others, a vision for change: involve many perspectives and think through consequences systemically
    Sometimes it may be better to start small: grow from there, or take a portfolio approach or try out several options. You can never be quite sure what will work and what will not.
    Allow for customisation: goals might be common but how to achieve them may depend on local circumstances, so allow for variation in how to do things
    Expect to learn and adapt as you do things: unintended consequences and unexpected changes in the wider world are normal. Build in iterative processes for dialogue, review and adaptation
    Keep looking for change – around and ahead: take note of things that are interesting or different and triangulate these qualitative perceptions with what others are noticing. Keep scanning widely for new factors emerging in the wider world; take a range of opinions, particularly from those close to the issues; think about the future; think a few steps ahead. You will be more attuned to change as it emerges and better able to anticipate and adapt and seize opportunities.
Reference: Boulton, Jean G.; Allen, Peter M.; Bowman, Cliff. Embracing Complexity: Strategic Perspectives for an Age of Turbulence (Page 8). OUP Oxford. Kindle Edition.

Cynefin Framework

Also of note, is Dave Snowden’s take on recognising complexity, through which he developed a sensemaking framework called Cynefin:
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