The infrequent and rambling thoughts of Paul Howse...

Concerning Complexity

I had a conversation with a fellow worker of mine a few days ago about strategic planning. Unfortunately, I wasn’t quite able to make myself fully understood at the time. So that prompted me to write the following little tract.

1. Beowulf.
Consider Beowulf, the early English tale of a Danish adventurer and king. What’s the best way to read this story? English has changed so much over time that the average reader requires a translation. Fortunately, there are several available. Some aim to get across the metre and flow of the original story. Some aim to choose the most accurate word for each word in the original. So the modern reader can make their choice based on what they think is the best method of getting at the original document.

But the best way to understand Beowulf is to learn old English and read the document in the original. More than that, they will get the full richness out of the text if they first infuse themselves with knowledge about life as lived at the time of composition, the literary, social, political, intellectual and religious context in which the original document came into being. Furthermore, its transmission and influence are also interesting narratives that should be considered when understanding the text as it resides in the modern world.

Sounds like a lot of work. And it is. But if you want to truly understand the document you can’t be afraid of a little hard work, and it is perfectly possible for someone to achieve this. Lots of people have done it and the world is a better place for it.

To be totally obvious and out there about what I’m trying to say with the preceding paragraphs: You don’t understand something complex by taking the easy path.

2. Ideological model building.
I’ve been mulling over this one for a while.

Consider academic studies. Let’s take History as an example, but it’s the same in a lot of fields. Many historians take a particular slant on the study of a given set of events. The economic historian will interpret the events by looking at and explaining economic forces underlying events and the economic outcomes springing therefrom. The feminist historian views events as they relate to gender or see events as illustrative of the intellectual model they are using.

What ends up happening, however, is that the information in question is forced into the interpretational model selected. The evidence that supports the model is selected for consideration, that which doesn’t easily fit is either ignored or briefly explained away. In doing so they transform the information they are studying and end up creating not so much a deep understanding of the topic as much as a representation of the topic conforming to their preconceptions.

Now, the apologist for this form of scholarship might say “But Paul, the only way forward is to build models, testing and rebuilding as needs be. No one person can possibly fathom the complexity of a particular subject in all its aspects. Surely we should allow these particular people to chase their respective rabbits down their ideological rabbit holes to see how far they go?”

I respectfully disagree. These particularized studies tend to be read predominately by people who already agree with the preconception, or sometimes by those who are diametrically opposed and are looking for something to disagree with. Other scholars may pass their eyes across the document but are unlikely to pay it much heed or remember the details.

I propose a different approach. Fear not complexity. Instead embrace it. The human mind is capable of understanding vastly complex subjects and dealing with a vast quantity of information. Scholars should not be afraid to attempt an integrated study of a subject, including as many different aspects and means of analysis as possible – a truly comprehensive work.

To be obvious again: scholars frequently cut up topics into smaller bits, ordered ideologically, fearing the complexity of trying to deal with a subject unbounded by theoretical constraints. In the process they frequently lose the value in looking at the topic through a broader window.

To sum up thus far: Although capable, people are often scared of the effort involved in understanding something complex on its own terms.

3. Organizational planning.
This same tendency can be seen in organizational planning. In almost all larger workplaces there tends to be 2 types of worker: those who are employed to do the various different tasks essential to the running of everyday business activities, and those employed to steer the organization in the direction they believe is the best. The relationship between these two groups tends to be marked by distance and misunderstanding. Let’s call them “Planners” and “Workers” for ease of reference.

Planners tend to think of the organization as a single entity positioned within a community of other organizations. Should they wish the organization to grow one way and shrink another, this is thought of purely as a strategic concern. These individuals are given little time to consider the particulars of how each section of the organization literally works. They hardly ever experience what it is like to be a “worker”. They do not understand viscerally how anything actually operates. It is too small in scope for what they are paid for.

Which is why the Workers tend to view them with suspicion. Workers see the grand designs drawn up by the Planners and, after they have waded through the unfamiliar language and concepts alluded to in the voluminous documents, become vaguely aware that the changes proposed:

  • Will cause a lot of stress and suffering to people
  • Will take a lot of time and effort to implement
  • Look totally unnecessary
  • Are poorly explained
  • Do not take into account how the work is actually done.

It is not uncommon for Workers to feel that the proposals of the Planners are there simply to justify the enormous pay packets they undoubtedly receive.

And this is, of course, wrong. Large organizations require strategic planning, require change to adapt to the changing economic and political environment in which they exist. Otherwise they’ll just continue to operate the way they’ve always done regardless of circumstance, become slowly more obsolete and eventually fail.

It isn’t necessarily the planners’ fault, either. Consider the current thinking about “Thinking”. It is generally repeated that one might engage in either “Big Picture” thinking or “Detail Oriented” thinking. Planners are expected to do “Big Picture” thinking and, by virtue of this fact, are discouraged from considering detail. The only reason I can see to justify this is because people fear being bogged down by the complexity of the detail.

Once again: complexity is feared.

But if one is to make important decisions affecting the lives of hundreds of people, surely fear is not a sufficient excuse?

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