Entangled Knots and Complexity

The idea of entanglements is central to understanding complexity in systems and the knots that they generate

The idea of entanglements and systems is at the heart of our understanding of complexity as it’s experienced in the world.

Much of the literature on complexity speaks of entanglements as complications that arise to challenge our ideas of causes and consequences, time and demands of the situation. Leaders, for example, must navigate and balance demands, situations, and strategy together.

Like of much of what’s written on complexity the mention of concepts like entanglements is much easier done than it is practiced. Some of the reasons for this is that writing is linear – it has to be otherwise it doesn’t make sense. It’s one of the reasons we use metaphors in our discussions of complexity because it allows us to imagine in some way what it is that we are talking about in more than two dimensions. It allows us to relate to something that our words are awkwardly suited to describing.

Metaphors for Practical Complexity

A knot in the hair or line of rope is a useful metaphor when discussing entanglements. Like any model, it’s imperfect, but its utility is in how it allows us to consider factors associated with the problem in ways that can be transferred to real life. This is part of the practical working with complexity.

A knot is an entanglement that reduces, obscures, and limits information perception (i.e., we can’t see all that is going on or how things relate).

Here is what the metaphor of knots can teach us seven things about dealing with complexity:

  1. Understanding how the knot was formed has little use in shaping what we do to untangle it. There is little value in retracing the steps that got us to where we are, although we can benefit from understanding the circumstances and materials involved. The past context matters much, the past events matter little.
  2. Knowledge of materials. The degree of entanglement is tied to the materials engaging with the context — we require understanding of both to work effectively at dealing with them. For example, fine hair versus coarse hair will both tangle, but it will tangle differently.
  3. Knots require time, focus, and energy to untangle — they resist urgency. Rapid action on a knot does almost no good and might actually be counter-productive. One can be efficient with time, deliberative with focus, and sustained in the use of energy, but we cannot force a knot to be untied with greater force, motivation, or effort.
  4. Radical steps to eliminate knots transform the rope (system). One way to get rid of the knots in a rope is simply to cut the rope at the knot. That works very well while also eliminating much of the rope itself. It also points to another issue of location: where the knot is located can help us to understand what the implications are of any effort to untangle it. The rope-cutting exercise is a feasible option if the knot is at the very end, not in the middle.
  5. Knots require attention to both the fine details and the larger context. Where the knot is, the tightness of the knot, and the layers of entanglement will require various degrees of dexterity and attention.
  6. Sometimes intervention from outside the system is required to untangle things. A hair needle, a screwdriver, or something else might be what’s necessary to pry open space within a knot to allow us to work with it. These are interventions that can create space for movement and loosening of the entanglement.
  7. A knot looks different from where you view it. It sounds obvious, but it’s often forgotten that where we view the knot (the entanglement in the system) shapes how we approach detangling it. Different points of view — the global 360 degree perspective — will yield new information that may be useful. It’s not just about diversity of perspective, but inclusion of those perspectives in our understanding of the situation.


This is where we too often fail to make substantial positive changes because — ironically — of entanglements in our social systems. System entanglements resist traditional planning models. We can draw on experience to anticipate what might be involved in addressing the ‘knot’ (problem, situation, blockage), but we cannot predict it. We also learn that efforts to untangle the knot might reveal more about the system than we’d expected and then need to deal with.

This is one of the incredibly frustrating aspects of these kinds of problems. COVID-19 can be successfully addressed with a set of measures that restrict interaction between people, but the amount and degree of restriction is where the complexity comes in. Can we all just stay at home? What about groceries? What about healthcare? Who is going to staff firehalls or our sanitation system or fix our Internet connections? Is Netflix — and their staff and server maintenance teams — an essential service if we are all at home? Can journalists do their job exclusively from home and still inform us of what’s going on accurately?

The degree of exceptions means that we cannot take a simple approach to dealing with it. And every exception has consequences and create more knots in our system.

Intervention requires a longer-term perspective and understanding the knots and ropes we are dealing with. As mentioned, past actions are of limited use in dealing with the present for problems of complexity, but future-thinking and foresight is actually very helpful. It’s not predicting what will happen with certainty, rather it’s about guiding how we address the issues of today with an eye to what might be coming based on the trends and patterns we see.

Paying attention to those patterns and modeling — envisioning — what might happen requires the same kind of actions that we take when dealing with entanglements. It provides us with places to intervene in a system today and where to focus our evaluation efforts to understand the effects tomorrow.

Escaping the Urgency Trap

The lessons we are learning from COVID will only be useful if we attend to them. It’s too easy to get wrapped up in the urgency that the situation of the global pandemic presents us. To be sure, front-line healthcare workers need to adopt a stance of urgency. Social workers, psychologists, and teachers might need to take this on, too. But as citizens, we collectively must resist the temptation to focus on the urgency and try to cut out our knots or rush into untangling them because our systems will resist it and the effort will be largely wasted.

There are, as Graeme Mackay so brilliantly articulates above, more threats and many further entanglements to come.

It’s time to design a practical strategy for dealing with them – lest we get swept away by the tidal waves offshore.

Photo by Gaelle Marcel on Unsplash and cartoon from Graeme Mackay

Cameron D. Norman

I am a designer, psychologist, educator, evaluator, and strategist focused on innovation in human systems. I'm curious about the world around me and use my role as Principal and President of Cense Ltd. as a means of channeling that curiosity into ideas, questions, and projects that contribute to a better world.

2 thoughts on “Entangled Knots and Complexity

  • April 8, 2021 at 3:05 pm

    Brilliant piece. It makes me think about how knots tighten when the rope is pulled; that idea of tightening due to forces is also very systemic.

    • April 8, 2021 at 4:41 pm

      Enrique — Thanks for the feedback and a great point about tightening. The metaphor can go a long way and that’s a terrific addition to it.


Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: