When Did Complexity Change Its Meaning?

Saying something is complex was once an admission we didn’t have expertise, now it’s a cover for not committing to something. What does it mean when we undermine the meaningfulness of the term complexity?

If you were involved in business operations or social innovation 15 years ago, you might remember when people rarely used “complex” or “complexity.” The reason was that, back then, saying something was complex meant you didn’t understand it, and that, presumably, meant you weren’t smart enough or up to the task.

Then, books like Getting to Maybe, Chaos, The Black Swan, Six Degrees, Apollo’s Arrow, and Complexity were published or popularized, introducing people to concepts like complexity science, emergence, network effects, systems thinking and systemic change. This introduced systems literacy to people who finally had language to describe what they were witnessing and experiencing in their work and life.

I once spoke to a group of social work graduate students on complexity and had a student approach me afterward, almost in tears saying how this connected so much with her experience. The concepts of complexity, while intricate, speak to the human condition in profound ways.

The language of complexity (science, theory, thinking, practice) contrasts the rational, planned, linear approach that wasn’t sufficient to explain or guide what we do in real, everyday terms. But, it also is a term that lives up to its name.

As the term implies, complexity is not easily understood and is tricky to apply without some thoughtfulness. It’s much like monetary policy, chronic disease, and climate change.

Somewhere On the Road To Change

As people became more familiar and comfortable with complexity concepts, they began being used more frequently in the common discourse on topics like social impact, project management, education, and policy. But, as the Dunning-Kruger Effect describes, people with a little bit of knowledge on a topic might be unaware of the limits of what they know. Thus, we have people speaking about complexity without fully understanding what they are saying.

Another thing changed: accountability. Once we started talking about complexity it was expected that it might be better taken into account in decision making, planning, and outcome expectations. Of course, the problem – see Dunning-Kruger Effect — is that many administrators and decision-makers lacked the depth of understanding of complexity to design programs, systems, and supports that properly accounted for complexity.

What emerged from that was a mashup of demands, expectations, aspirations, and strategies that used complexity language and (mostly) traditional, linear, conventional structures. We still had “best evidence” and “best practice” language used to address matters where there was both 1) little appropriate evidence to guide us, and 2) no such things as “best” practice given that we are dealing with complexity. The science hadn’t (and hasn’t) caught up with our language, but change continued as we can’t wait for evidence that may never come.

But a funny thing happened on our road to change. Complexity is now being used as an out from making decisions, enacting leadership, and creating the very change that the term helped us to explain.

Can We Rehabilitate or Untangle Complexity?

The answer to the question above is: we don’t have much choice.

I don’t see how introducing a new lexicon is going to help us.

But then what? The importance of education, engagement and real dialogue on matters of complexity is pretty important. Being clear with people what it is, isn’t and how there are no single definitions is a start. While there is no one way to see complexity, there are many ways that simply don’t jibe with the theory, the science, or the practice.

Too often people confuse what might be considered complicated or simple with what is complex. This comes from the Cynefin Framework, which I see as the best tool available for working with and making sense of systems, patterns, and activity. Cynefin is relatively straightforward in its structure and use. It’s something that requires little training to use, yet also requires the time, care, and attention that inspires the kind of sensemaking that is required for working with complexity. That quality means people will not simply label things as complex, but require them to explain how they came to that conclusion. In doing so, it guides people toward using the term complexity in ways that fit with the various definitions and leaves space to interpret and make sense of their experience. It helps us to avoid dogmatism.

This also means giving ourselves space to speak openly about the challenges in doing complexity-oriented work. That means not knowing things, not having right tools, and recognizing the importance of sensemaking and creating space to understand each other and the position we find ourselves at any given moment. That involves challenging things like systems mapping which often speak of leverage points, when what we’re really speaking of is leverage moments.

Just as we are learning ways to reconcile, integrate, expand, and understand how we address the effects of colonialism, capitalism, globalization and other ‘isms’, so must we learn to think “complexively.” It’s both very natural and unnatural to the person raised and educated in most Western countries. If we can do that and create space to have meaningful conversations about what we see and experience in the many systems around us, we’ll do better at making meaningful change within them.

Complexity isn’t a simple concept, but we can practice ways to engage organizations, communities, and markets (systems) that work with complexity rather than against it. If you require help with this, let’s talk.

Image Credits: Tim Johnson on Unsplash and Kristin Snippe on Unsplash

Comments are closed.

Scroll to Top
%d bloggers like this: