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Making Sense of Now

“Cry ‘Havoc!’, and let slip the dogs of war.”

Julius Caesar. Act III Scene 1. William Shakespeare.

Havoc. a military order permitting the seizure of spoil after a victory

We find ourselves in interesting times, and normal metaphors just aren’t up to it. I wrote last week that things are beyond complicated. When they are, unintended consequences have a field day.

In the early days of social media, we saw opportunities for direct connection to friends near and far, the opportunity to meet new ones, and the ability to get news and ideas direct from the “horse’s mouth” rather than filtered and moderated by the media establishment. Politics at the time was as febrile as always, but there were some basic standards.

And here we are today, with politicians able to circumvent any media moderation to release stories that they choose, targeted with almost military precision to achieve short term advantage. Although America this morning is an obvious example, it’s not restricted to that divided country – just because others do the same thing less obviously doesn’t make it any less destructive.

Neither is it difficult to extend the comparisons. One of my favourite strategists, John Boyd (also a favourite of our Dominic Cummings) based his operational approach on “getting inside the decision loop” of the opposition, or put another way, disorienting them to the point where they could no longer respond. That becomes much easier when there are no checks and balances on stories being pumped out, and egregious allegations can be launched through unmoderated media who lap up the advertising real estate it generates.

In a few weeks all this will be less obvious (but just as insidious) and we will settle back into the peace and quiet of a coronavirus economy. The efforts being made to support people through the disruption it is causing, whilst commendable, will have unpredictable consequences.

Leaving aside the massive debt, at a more immediate level change that would normally have happened, hasn’t. From businesses being kept afloat that would otherwise have failed naturally, through to people who would have moved jobs but haven’t, and new businesses that would have started but can’t get the capital because it’s going to those who should have failed we have zombies wandering the landscape of a dysfuntional economy frozen in time.

When it thaws, there’s a good chance that change will happen very quickly indeed. The zombies will flee and we have something of a brand new day

The nature of complex.

Right now, just this side of chaos, we have three sorts of problem in front of us. (I’ve used terminology here from Cynefin. Reading it in the current situation is, I suggest, a good use of anyone’s time)

  1. Clear. “Known Knowns”. Problems that are well understood, documented, and with known and proven solutions. Best Practice. Having your car serviced. Hospital Triage. Management Accountancy. Conveyancing.
  2. Complicated. “Known Unknowns”. Problems with many, but predictable moving parts and clear boundaries. They can be analysed and solved, and the solutions are repeatable. Good Practice. Computer operating systems. Heart surgery. . Tax Accountancy., Case Law.
  3. Complex. “Unknown Unknowns”. Problems that are connected to many other domains that react to anything we do to solve the problem. No clear boundaries. Often called “wicked” problems. Emergent Practice. Cyber Security. Pandemic disease. Money Laundering. Fraud.

We have built our economy, and trained our children to deal with 1 and 2. Understand, find a solution, scale. It worked really well until the unintended consequences of connecting everything to everything else, and mindless exploitation of irreplaceable natural resources came back to bite us. Black Swans breeding away like crazy out there.

I suggest our biggest challenge, having been trained and rewarded to solve problems 1 and 2 is that we treat everything as though we can understand them in that way. It is the land of the well paid expert.

If we treat a complex problem, like coronavirus, as though its a very complicated problem, we end up in trouble. We have very clever scientists projecting infection and death rates, but we’re not talking too much about the complex problems – collateral deaths from other causes, the corrosive effects of blame, the carrying costs of supported but obsolete businesses. The list goes on and on.

Complex and chaos are catalysts. Beyond the reach of single domain experts, we have no choice but to experiment with “safe to fail” projects as we probe the unknown and start to understand or in extremis, in chaos, just do something, hope and understand as best we can the effect of what we’ve done.

Complex problems are a very different game for people and businesses trained to deal with complicated. Leadership requires courage and humility. The people best placed to solve the problem are not the experts, but those operating where the problems manifest. When it comes to a hierarchy the experts, managers, administrators and supervisors are too far away from a problem that changes quickly to understand it, yet alone deal with it. They either need to go the front, or give those at the front the authority to deal with it. For business, that’s a huge jump.

The military, and other “front line” services like police, ambulance and fire services are much better at it, using their own versions of “Mission Command”. Putting the authority where it’s needed and useful.

Thriving on Complexity and Chaos

We find ourselves, courtesy of coronavirus, in a window of opportunity.

We’ll get through this winter as best we can, and hopefully in the New Year vaccines will give us some mitigation. Until then, as we’re hunkered down, we can ask ourselves some important questions:

  • How much does the job I’ve been doing rely on solving complicated? How much is your life governed by good and best practice, operating models, lean six sigma? Give yourself a score out of ten. Anything over six, you’re in a high risk occupation.
  • How practiced are you at starting from scratch, using your own intiative, imagination and intuition to frame a problem so that you and others can see it differently?
  • How practiced are you at working with others who think very differently to you, and who have very different status to understand a problem. How are you with humility?
  • How attached to, and reliant are you to the way you work now? How willing are you to just “not know” as a start point to solving this problem?
  • How willing are you to entertain points of view very different to your own?

If we boil everything down, the start point for solving complex problems is conversation. Open, human, dialogic conversation without judgement. Making the problem the problem, not ourselves or other people the problem.

It’s hard. It’s like grief and takes us to denial, anger and blame, and longing for the old normal on the way to progress.

I think any other approach though is avoiding the problem.

There are a number of ways you can do it. A good coach (not a “solutions”coach) is one. Studying other approaches and ideas different to those you’ve been trained in is another. Curiosity is a gift we don’t use often enough.

Another might be to join one of two small groups I’m putting together with some friends to explore how we might do this. We don’t have a solution either, and we want to explore options.

If that idea appeals, just contact me and I’ll keep you posted. We’re going to start in December with a view to being ready for whatever next by Spring next year.

Be a shame to waste a winter.

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About the Author

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Complexity and volatility create enormous opportunities for those willing to go beyond the boundaries of "business as usual" to explore the edges of their business. I am an entrepreneur, a coach, a creative thinker, and above all, an explorer of possibility.

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