Demystifying the Complex, adaptive, agile and dynamic

*Update – The themes in this blog are illustrated in the KEn Diagram (part 2 of this blog)

Recently I was sent through a presentation on ‘Agile’ and its links to complexity by Jean Tabaka; I found it very interesting, but, at the same time, I honestly believe that, when it comes to complexity, we are contributing to cognitive illusions that are inhibiting/mystifying, not helping, the decision making process… This blog sets out to explain my position and then provides a perspective on what it is that is being spoken about when these terms are used.

“How do I become more agile” or ‘How do I deal with complexity” is the wrong question to ask; it is a Fundamentally Undefined Question.  Our brains are not configured to deal with this type of question; it is too abstract, to removed from what we know, and it will only serve to confuse us; quoting George Polya “If you can’t solve a problem, then there is an easier problem you can solve”.  In the presentation there is the suggestion that organisations call in consultants to simplify the complex, which is suggested as being incorrect; well, this is why.  Organisational complexity, to set the frame, involves poor quality pictures, high in granularity, that, given the risk adversity being grought about by the current environment, organisations find themselves uncomfortable with.  I would suggest, from my experience, that organisations are asking for help in reducing the level of granularity so that they can make better decision; remember, this is set against a current backdrop of risk adversity and prudence, brought about by recent economic events.  There is talk of needing to understand the probable or outliers; the power of low probability/high impact events, popularised by Taleb’s book, ‘Black Swan.

People like to give examples, to warn us of the consequences of not addressing complexity – 9-11 being an event where context can be shared across cultures – David Snowden used this example in his HBR article, on complexity and decision-making, to frame chaos in his Cynefin framework, as did Taleb.  The suggestion by many is that by understanding the probable, by creating foresight, we will be better placed to react, to adapt, when events change the parameters of the environment. The problem is that we also have to be careful that we are not confusing randomness with complexity – finding patterns in complexity that don’t really exist in what are called clustering illusions.  Also, even recognising and planning for the probability of the scenario does not guarantee the response:  In the case of 9-11, the US Government, between 1991 and 2001, had considered the probability of suicide hijackers taking over a plane and using it as a weapon; however the planning did not utilise outcomes to consider the mitigation of the point of threat on the aircraft itself.

The problem is that at the heart of organisational complexity are people.  We can surface all the data and information we want, but, ultimately, there is a human being at the end of the process as the activating agent – a human being impacted by bias, such as the affect or availability heuristic.  Also, consider this, how can you predict the probable environmental events in a system containing 7 billion agents? Every probable scenario is itself entangled in its own web of complexity and we will always be subject to the law of unintended consequences – the action that creates a response that we did not predict.

I also believe that we ‘mystify’ complexity, which I believe comes through in Tabaka’s presentation.  Snowden, for example, again in his HBR article, uses the Apollo 13 crisis to contextualise a complex environment.  I would argue that this is a good example of people doing exactly what Tabaka is being asked to do when she works with organisations.  At the beginning of the Apollo 13 crisis scenario, the famous,”Houston we have a problem”, the problem is is fundamentally undefined.  The environment is scanned (probed) and the root of the problem becomes isolated or framed.  The problem, life threatening in this case, stimulating emotion, the best learning environment, required a solution.  Agents are brought to bear on the problem, in this case people and objects.  There are a finite number of variables available to the solution – the raw materials available to fix the problem; people are then required to respond – cause and effect is known, the solution is framed by a limited number of object variables…I would suggest that this is actually the reduction of a problem that, upon presentation seemed complex, but,when framed, became complicated – I could also argue that the objects acted as strange attractors in a complex environment, taking on new roles as the frame of the environment changed.  What I am trying to get across here is that what Tabaka is asked to do is understandable and a natural reaction to the environment we exist in.

I do think Tabaka needs to re-frame the approach; we need to start by asking a different question; why do we want to become agile?  By re-framing the question we start to understand the problem and, from there, we can formulate (foresee) a response.  Globalisation and the Knowledge Economy push organisations to become more adaptive, agile and dynamic – I’ve spoken enough in my blogs about the demands of the Knowledge Economy and the need to develop ‘Knowledge Advantage’.  The key is to understand what is needed… the organisational environment is formed by people; people make the technology, the artefacts of our knowledge, knowing and expertise, that act to push and pull our need to innovate services/products.  I’ll try to illustrate what I mean by dynamic, agile and adaptive in a complex environment…

First, a video to illustrate ‘dynamic’ – A foundation built upon the capability (Competence/competency – quality or excellence?), capacity and existing knowledge, knowing and expertise of the individual/group/team/organisation – The picture can become more complicated/complex, but it is built upon the capability/capacity of the individual:

Next, a video to illustrate ‘agile’ – Emergent roles taken on by individuals, informed by their dynamic capabilities – the role emerges, resolves and disperses according to the framing of the environment

Finally, a video to illustrate ‘adaptive’ – Read my blog on complexity to get the full picture on this complex environment and the need for the team to adapt according to opposition, weather conditions, the referee, the crowd…the coach has known parameters to adjust according to how challenges in the environment are surfaced (tactics, technique, psychological, physiological), but the outcome is dependent upon the dynamic capability of the player and their understanding of agile – emergent roles

Fundamentally, this is about ensuring that we develop people to be better problem-solvers, better communicators, better collaborators. Our futures will become more knowledge intensive and will be built on having the best person available at the right time.  Future competitive advantage will be built upon a knowledge advantage.  That, for me, is what this is all about.

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  • snowded

    Are you saying that the Apollo 13 is actually complicated? I want to check before I respond.

    Otherwise I disagree that its all about people – ideas, myths and yes technology can have agency in a complex system which involves humans. I also think that Jean does frame the problem the way you suggest, the opening sequence and her identification of failure points clearly make the case for Agile. But even if not, she is speaking to an Agile conference. Her goal is to get Agile people to take complexity theory seriously in their practice, that she does. With an audience which had not already understood that I am sure she would have made the points differently.

    • http://knowcademy.com David Griffiths

      Hi Dave, I’m bracing myself, but I am saying that the Apollo 13 domain you used in your example was not as purely complex as it first seems.

      The environmental disturbance, the explosion caused by the dropped oxygen tank, caused a chaotic event. The resulting domain, the 24 hours to replace the CO2 filter, which you referred to, is, in my opinion, less complex – my argument being that there were a limited number of variables with which to address the problem (the objects that could be reassigned to take on a new role). The engineers designed a 19 step process where failure at any given stage could be traced and cause and effect identified – this was achieved through data and testing in the simulator. The pressure caused by the time constraint, available knowledge and the ingenuity that emerged was incredible, but the isolated problem of the ‘square peg in the round hole’, in my opinion, was less complex and more complicated. Using your context characteristic descriptors against this incident, it could be said that “expert diagnosis was required”; “Cause and effect relationships were discoverable but not immediately apparent to everyone”; “more than one right answer was possible”; “fact based management”. This against the definitions of ‘Complex’: “Flux and unpredictability” – They knew they had 24 hours, they knew the problem, the problem was stable and they knew the variables that could be manipulated – I would argue that there were more Known-Unknowns in this context than Unknown-Unknowns. I agree that there were many competing ideas, but the potential solutions were limited and cause and effect relationships more linear than non-linear. This is purely against the example of the CO2 filter and not the Apollo 13 problem as a whole.

      I also agree that people and objects have agency, as I said in the Apollo example, in the context of organisational complexity – the object, as an agent, took on a new role. However, the enabling actant, the agent that gave the object authority in the context, was a person – without the person behind the decision the object would still exist as an actant in the context, but it would remain dormant; myths are propagated by people and technology is an artefact of the person human…my argument being that objects can most certainly have agency, but authority for that agency defers to the person human as the limiting actant in the context of my post, organisational complexity.

  • http://www.pmhut.com PM Hut

    Hi David,

    Can you please link to the HBR article mentioning the Apollo 13 crisis?

    I couldn’t find a link to that article in your post…

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