Beyond Complicated

image: National Geographic.

It used to be, only a few years ago, that “best practice” was seen as a cure all. Find an approach, develop a case study, market it and watch the money roll in. Develop once, sell lots. Nice.

It was never true of course, it was just that then, when things were less connected the flaws didn’t show up quite to quickly, and not until after the invoice had been paid.

Now, it’s different. Best Practice still has a place, but only in those areas where the situation is pretty static. Where the rules are clear. Legislation helps.

There are excellent fees to be generated selling best practice in accounting, or GDPR, or Health and Safety. Anywhere where the rules and the boundaries are man made and clear. The challenges will go from simple to complicated and will have a common feature:

The problem can be analysed by experts, a solution applied. and that solution will work until somebody changes the rules. When they do, more analysis and a new best practice. Episodic change can be planned for.

For most of us however, living day to day beyond the neat world of legislation, life is increasingly complex, and complex is a long, long way from complicated.

In our complicated world, models still have a place but their applicability is fleeting. We can use them to help analyse a situation today as long as we understand that analysis will be wrong tomorrow. Whilst simple and complicated have boundaries, complex doesn’t. Things we haven’t even thought of, in places we haven’t considered, turn up unannounced.

Even as we’re developing a virus for Covid-19, a new strain turns up on a farm in Spain and gets spread to the rest of Europe through relaxed rules on tourism based on estimates. Recorded cases spike, and our nicely planned centralised tiered response system can’t keep up. Businesses who thought they were following the rules suddenly find they’re not and fail through no fault of their own. Wrong place, wrong time. Meanwhile the Tech giants profits soar, through no effort of their own. Right place, Right time. Napoleon said “don’t give me good generals, give me lucky generals”.

What it means for the rest of us, as we get swept up in this maelstrom of uncertainty is that planning is pretty much out of the window for a while. What we have to rely on is not “out there” and calculable, it’s inside and sensed.

One of the greatest thinkers on uncertainty was John Boyd, a maverick US Fighter Pilot who made a study of one of the most uncertain of domains, front line warfare. He knew that when things went from complicated to complex, plans and centralisation just don’t work. He identified five key qualities that those having to deal with complexity need:

  • “Oneness” – a sense of unity within ourselves, with those we work with, and with our abilities. A sense of mastery of our immediate environment.
  • Awareness. An exquisite sense of awareness of what is going on around us, and a sensitivity to what is emerging. Think martial arts – “if you have to think, it’s too late”
  • Agility. In every sense of the word. Being able to turn quickly. Anything that stops you doing that, like unwanted obligations such as debt, or attachment to the past, is dangerous.
  • The way we work. Boyd’s work was based on, and further developed the military concept of “mission command”. In times of high turbulence, there’s no time to get permission. Those at the front line – in business, or government as well as the miltary have to understand what is needed to be achieved so they can make the best decision they can in the circumstances they find themselves in. There’s no time to seek permission.
  • Focus. In the midst of turbulence, being focused on what is important right now. Move on when that is achieved, and not until.

People use miltary metaphor for all sorts of reason, and often out of context, but in this case the personal qualities Boyd identified stand the test of time, from Sun Tzu to now. (and when they feature in Dominic Cumming’s playbook, they must be serious – high five to Chet Richards for this)

The takeaway is this. We cannot plan for what is happening. We have to deal with now, supported by people we trust, for reasons we understand and agree on.

Grip Self. Grip Team. Grip Task. That order.

David gilbert smith.

Get that right, and you’ll come out of this stronger.

Starting next week, we’re starting a discussion on how we best harness current uncertainty. If you can feel your inner warrior calling, be good to have you there. Sign up to this blog below, and we’ll keep you posted.

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