We talk a great deal about complexity, from terms like VUCA to our focus on resilience and antifragility. But, unfortunately, complexity has become a modern-day villain, usurping our comfortable lives when in reality, it is nothing new. The nature and wonders of life are that it is complex.
I think that we need to consider that life has not become more complex. On the contrary, it is that we have become simpler. We have transgressed Einstein’s dictum and moved beyond simplicity to convenience. We have tamed craft through process, enabling scale and cost reduction but left behind the intimacy that craftspeople have with the materials they use. They know where the material comes from, have respect for it and work with its natural variations. They create something unique. Beauty doesn’t do uniform.
The search for efficiency has led us to force it into submission by applying heat and pressure to ensure conformity and precise replication. We have replaced the pleasure of working with numbers and delegated it to excel. We have replaced the art of conversation with monologues around goals and targets and have our eyes fixed on the road ahead, and find ourselves ignoring the scenery around us. And when we lose the art of conversation (root, conversare; “turning together”), we also lose our capabilities in original thinking. Instead, we measure, judge and conform, and ourselves become subject to heat and pressure rather than work with our own natural variations.
Complexity is wonderful. We see its beauty in everything around us, from the unique form of a simple leaf to the way a child learns. Our ability to analyse and the power of the scientific method have blinded us to and made us afraid of what we don’t understand. We get seduced into thinking that because we understand a great deal, we can understand everything. We rush past the beauty of simple to the ignorance of simpler. If we really want to get to grips with complexity, we need to abandon our search for analytical convenience and embrace what we do not sense more than know. Research into attitudes about workforce engagement doesn’t even scratch the surface of how work fits into our lives, in the same way that there is only so much connection we can delegate to an algorithm.
Simplicity and elegance are at the heart of beauty, but we cannot develop a process to make something beautiful. That requires the unique capabilities of humans.