22 March 2012

The Value of Complication vs. Complexity in Organizations, Management, and Leadership

I’ve been spending some time working through syllabus topics for our courses in our future Master’s in Leadership and Organization, Development and Coaching. I’m up to the course on Complexity: Theory and Applications, and have been doing some reading of various papers and journal articles I’ve amassed over the years. In particular, a number of the articles struggle – more or less – over the issue of complication vs. complexity.

As I (and others) metaphorically, if archetypically describe in several seminars I do with complexity themes, “baking cookies is simple … going to the moon is complicated … raising children is complex.” Often, common language sets “complexity” in direct, polar opposition to “simplicity.” That, in turn, has the effect of encouraging people to shun complexity thinking because – as it is often expressed with some degree of exasperation – “my life is already too complex as it is.” And, it is indeed the likely case that their lives are quite complex, especially if they live in relative proximity to any social grouping in society. We tend to be social animals, we connect via a wide variety of relationships, we remember experiences and anticipate possible outcomes that affect (and oftentimes effect) decisions. We adapt to environments, situations, circumstances, encounters with specific individuals, and the results are most often deterministically unpredictable. Contemporary life is, indeed, complex.

In order to maintain the illusion of control, we often attempt to simplify the complex dynamics by creating mental models that are more cause-and-effect, deterministically predictable. Organizational leaders – especially those who are de facto managers – do this all the time. They plan, execute the plan, achieve the prescribed results—and then execute those who fail to “meet expectations” (since, truth be told, they are the ones who reveal the fallacy of control illusions).

However, most of my Valence Theory work, and my current experiences in designing this degree program, suggest that if one navigates emergent effects on a trajectory towards the ultimate effects one intends, a complex system will tend to behave as your friend. On the other hand, the more control one attempts to impose on the complex system, the more likely it is that nonlinear, emergent effects will bite your butt in the form of so-called unanticipated consequences. Such controls recast a nonlinear, complex system into a reduced, complicated model that will likely have very different outcomes. As I have previously written, “As in the fashion of a Newtonian clockwork universe, that complexity is replaced by the complication of B[ureaucratic] A[dministratively controlled] H[ierarchical] procedures in an attempt to replicate an organic system of humanity with the equilibrium of non-human machinery.”

But why do we do it?—aside from the observation that we simply don’t know any better, that we have had between four and eight centuries of socialization in BAH. It occurs to me that there might actually be a fungible-Economic rationality behind introducing complication into a complex system:

Introducing complication into a complex system is a means through which value is extracted from the system to the benefit of the complicating agent(s).

This heuristic seems to work when applied to conventional management, governance (and especially government), investment banking, systems of knowledge and so-called intellectual property. It’s an intriguing idea, don’t you think?

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