Complexity – The Elephant In The Room

Russell Ackoff had some awesome insights but I think my favorite is when he talks about how doing the wrong things right doesn’t really help us. As he notes “you see we are largely devoted to doing the wrong thing right, that’s very unfortunate because the righter you do the wrong thing, the wronger you become, when we do the right thing wrong, we make a mistake that when detected allows us to improve. So the distinction is absolutely critical and we are a society absolutely drowning in the efficiency concerning the pursuit of the wrong ends.” Edward de Bono also points this out but in a different way when he says “most of the mistakes in thinking are inadequacies of perception, rather than mistakes of logic”

I think what they are both getting at is how an imbalance in our reasoning leads us to focus less on the context – the whole – and more on specific solutions – the parts. Rather than stepping back to look at the whole context within which an issue exists and being able to live with the tensions and contradictions required to formulate the best way forward given the overall context, we more often simply focus on the “pain point” that we have and rush to find a specific solution to that.

This “pain point” might be climate change, it might be ethnic conflict, migration or a financial crisis, in all cases what we find is that we search for a specific cause to the undesirable effect and then try to alter that specific cause so as to get rid of the undesirable effect.  While this may work in a world of simplicity, in a world of complexity it just leads to doing the “wrong thing right.” In a world of complexity, issues become interconnected and systemic, focusing on parts and specific solutions result in fire fighting symptoms that are continuously being recreated by systemic dysfunctionalities.

There is no shortage of people doing the right thing – maybe 50% of us – but how many of us are doing the right thing right, I would say an extremely small fraction of a percentage. Most of us are continuing on within the box of our linear institutional structures – trying to do the right thing within that context – which are ultimately based upon a set of simplifying assumptions that make them the wrong vehicle in this world of complexity. Very few are stepping outside and looking at this new context with a fresh perspective so as to re-question what is the best way to proceed given the changes underway.

The result of this is that with the best of intentions we go on using the same institutional structures to try and tackle each issue as if it were separate – because that is the only way they fit into existing siloed structures. Greta Thunberg my have the right intentions but unknowingly resorts back to using the wrong solutions when she protests to governments to solve climate change; linear approaches to nonlinear issues I think is what Ackoff would have called doing the wrong thing right.

I think when we step back and look at the whole context of the time we live in we start to see that the issues we face follow similar patterns. It is not so much about the climate, water scarcity, cybersecurity or migration it is instead really about complexity. The fact that the world has just got a whole pile more complex and linear solutions are no longer sufficed across almost all domains. Whether it is centralizing all our data into data centers, measuring progress as GDP or creating stronger borders to solve for migration,  they all follow the same pattern that is no longer working. What is needed is an acceptance of the complexity of this new context and a re-evaluation of the basic assumptions that go into our understanding of the world and how we organize ourselves.

I think the key insight that is missing from almost all proposed solutions is that of complexity. As pressing as the environmental crises and other issues may be I think they are ultimately symptoms of us not being able to embrace and work with complex systems – complexity is the elephant in the room.


Many people are frustrated and wish to express that by blaming – just as Greta Thunberg and the students are blaming politicians – but no one part or set of parts is to blame, wicked problems are the emergent outcome of dis-functionalities within complex systems, they are a function of the way the system is organized not the product of any of its part’s or their properties. This is about how we as individuals and whole societies think and organize ourselves. It is about thinking differently and creating new systems of organization that disrupt the old, not by overthrowing them but by being better able to deal with complexity and thus better able to organize people in new productive ways on the scale that is necessary today.

The issue is not sustainability, it is really about learning to understand, design and manage complex systems because there are no sustainable solutions on this side of the complexity of the systems we have created. Sustainability is on the other side of complexity – sustainable systems are ones built upon the principles of complexity. Sustainability may be the best term we have come up with to express the kind of challenges we face collectively – given that it is widely recognized and makes sense to a lot of people – but ultimately sustainability is an epiphenomenon while complexity is the central issue, it’s about us as human beings learning to deal with the complexity of the real world.

The age of linear models and the kind of solutions they produce is stumbling. The Industrial Age was never sustainable, it was always a driving force that would ultimately play out. As many economies around the world come to the end of this process of industrialization the ideas, principles, and systems design that supports that mode of organization is also coming to an end – hence the crisis of sustainability.

But what comes after it? What comes after it is a new mode of organization, one that is not a mono-dimensional reduction but that recognizes the multidimensionality of the world. Modes of thinking that are able to balance analytic inquiry with a synthetic holistic vision – not just separating and differentiating but also properly integrating. New ways of organizing that balance the constraints and possibilities of centralized and decentralized systems, that network people in synergistic ways. It is about understanding systems, interdependence, networks, adaptation and evolution. Learning to live with complexity and building organizations that are adapted to this new reality.

Date: 22/04/219
Author: Joss Colchester