Can’t get him out of my head…

Further reflections on Dave Snowden and the difference between the complex and merely complicated. The source of a lot of trouble in my life and other people's!
Johnnie Moore

Johnnie Moore

I’m Johnnie Moore, and I help people work better together

… Dave Snowden that is.

This paper of his – Sense Making in a Complex and Complicated World – which I blogged a few days ago – is really on my mind. In particular I’ve been thinking of the distinction between two domains of the four he describes the knowable and the complex. The knowable represents I suppose, things that are complicated – if you study them for long enough, you can figure out what to do to achieve a result. The complex represents things where all that analysis could be a waste of time, better to try things and see what happens.

I see a lot of people (myself included, and especially Dr Rant) struggling to deal with the complex as if it’s complicated. I can easily get into analysis and thinking without actually doing stuff (see how I felt on this day for instance) when it would be better to try a few things and see what happens. Curt Rosengren seems to get this in his advice to keep your feet moving. Another manifestation is to rush to judgement and categorise things as good or bad without allowing for ambiguity or context.

Far too many people don’t get this, and waffle about metrics, obsessing with narrow measures and making dubious correlations to “prove” their latest ideas “work”, without looking at the broader context. In Britain, our Health Service and education system have been plagued with the very worst kind of shallow target setting and performance measurement. Marketing is awash with dreary mechanistic models that reduce the subtle wonders of human relationships to things like “value drivers” (they sound pretty horrid, don’t they!). This – to my mind – is part of a desperate effort to run away from the complex by treating it as merely complicated, coralling it into the familiar domain of the knowable, the safe hunting ground of the Experts who Know What To Do who delight in its complications as it allows them to seem so clever.

Snowden says (I think) that it’s fine to treat complicated things as complicated but not to try to deal with complexity the same way. Spot on. (Or do I mean, approximately right?)

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