The Complexity Cop-out


Complexity introduces significant challenges for humans. One of the unexpected ones is that it’s been used to hide from difficult problems.

Our understanding of complexity has come a long way, but like many things, a little knowledge can be a real problem.

A few years back I was facilitating a public health event that was focused on what was (then) the emerging opioid crisis when the discussion shifted to homelessness. A member of the audience, seeking to draw parallels between the opioid crisis and homelessness drew a sharp rebuke from one of the panelists, an emergency room physician, who said: “(Homelessness) is not a complex problem. We know how to solve homelessness. We just don’t.”

He was right.

That encounter shifted something in me. As someone who’s studied and worked with complexity in social and health systems for my entire career, I was noticing a trend in the use of the term ‘complexity‘. Where I once was excited to hear it mentioned at all, I now was starting to bristle when it was uttered and this encounter illustrated why.

Neat, Simple, Wrong.

There was a time when scientists and other experts were reluctant to admit that they didn’t have an answer for a problem (even if that answer was, as H.L. Mencken said: neat, simple, and wrong). We didn’t want to admit we didn’t know what to do.

Something has changed and the growing popularization and familiarity with the term complexity is one of the reasons for it. Where complexity science and systems thinking were once seen as a fringe, we now see it reflected in top-flight scientific journals and theories across the social and natural sciences. It’s arrived.

Yet, like many big ideas there is a cost to this popularity and that includes an incomplete or incorrect understanding of the material (which is easy because complexity is a term that lives up to its name), or the misuse and mis-characterization of theories and ideas. As more people learn about complex systems, wicked problems, and the issues associated with these such as non-linear effects, effect delays, and an inability to exercise true control and thus, prediction, over such systems and it’s easy to feel that we can’t do anything.

It can also be a cop-out.

Under the Cover of Complexity

Cop-out (intransitive) 1: to back out (as of an unwanted responsibility) 2: to avoid or neglect problems, responsibilities, or commitments

Merriam Webster Dictionary

Complexity can be enormously humbling to an expert or someone in authority. The shift from understanding things from a command-and-control perspective to one based in complexity is difficult and involves humility, sensitivity, perseverance, creativity and resilience. That’s a tall order.

Rather than cede power to others on the basis of complexity, what I’m witnessing is this false empowerment from it. I say false because it can be empowering to know what we can and can’t control and embrace that, but it can be used falsely to empower people to do nothing when options exist, even if they are hard.

Tackling homelessness is hard. It involves bringing groups together and having them work in true collaboration and synergy toward a multiplicity of goals aimed at providing useful, structurally sound, safe places for people to live. It involves policy, practice, and a sustained commitment to infrastructure (and the means to fund it). It’s a wholly solvable problem. Medicine Hat, Alberta has done it.

That city’s effort was enormous and not easy, but they did it. The mechanisms behind that effort could be replicated in nearby larger cities like Calgary or other cities like Toronto or New York even if the pathways would most certainly have variation between them. It’s a complicated problem with complex aspects associated with it, but it is understandable, solvable, and actionable.

When Everything Is Complex

Education is complex. Healthcare is complex. Management is complex. It goes on. While I am not disagreeing that there are many aspects of all of these domains that are complex and have elements of complexity within them, labelling the enterprise as complex can be a means to hide from difficult issues.

Education is a great example of this. Our models of education are poorly suited to 21st century situations and technologies. We use building designs, labour models, financing approaches, student selection, and pedagogical approaches that are fit to the system as it was built, while that system is no longer fit for purpose.

Labelling this as a complex problem provides us with an out. We can’t deliver personalized, developmentally appropriate, adaptive learning because it’s complex, right? Where do we begin? The truth is we have a system that is enormously difficult to change because there are so many assumptions, traditions, entrenched interests and structures in place to keep it as it is. That’s a difficult issue, not (exclusively) complex.

We can redesign the system and it may not be as hard as people think, but without a change to our mental models we won’t. The hard work and leadership required to make the changes needed won’t happen when a problem is too complex.

Consider the story at the start of this post: When big, difficult, and important topics are complex it allows us to turn our backs on those who are homeless and struggling with opioid use instead of tackling what we can (in this case, housing) to migitate the issue. In taking care of housing we might do much to tackle other issues, too.

What to do?

I recently noticed something: there haven’t been many good books on complexity in years. In the mid-2000’s there was a boom. The graphic below shows the rise and plateau of the use of the term complexity as cited in books using Google Ngram. It appears I was partly right – but that my ‘boom’ was actually the end of a tail.

While I’ve noticed the continued rise in citations using the term complexity in popular journals on a variety of innovation topics, what I am not seeing is much difference in the way complexity concepts are used. It’s easy to talk about concepts like emergence, self-organization, and adaptation, but it’s another to show empirically using good research what that looks like in practice and how it was used to inform strategy.

I suspect a reason we’re not seeing this is that is hard to do. But it’s not — as I heard one scientist recently say about complexity in his research — complex. Without new knowledge it’s no surprise that the citations have peaked.

There is so much more to tell if we’re willing to write new stories through research, evaluation, and documenting our work and our thinking. Without that, these stories won’t get told and our problems — real, challenging, wicked ones — won’t get tackled if we keep using complexity as a cop-out.

Image credit: Complexity [4] by Neurovivo used under CC license, edited by author.

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