January 25, 2013

Complexity: decisions and dispositions

Written by Jennifer Garvey BergerJennifer Garvey Berger

Ok fasten your seat belts. We’re going to start to now play with the implications of this complexity stuff  I last blogged about on your work as a leader.  Look at the things on your list that you’ve been thinking about as “complex.” Remember that in Snowden’s framework, they get that designation if cause and effect are not predictable and repeatable.  Notice what would go on this list: your 5-year plan, your business cases, nearly all of your forecasting. I’m not suggesting that you should ignore these things or drive blindly into the future, but I’m suggesting that once you notice that you’re pretending you can predict the future in an unpredictable world, you can open up to trying new things.

Here the core distinction we want to play with is the distinction between thinking about predicting the future and thinking about the dispositions in the present. This shift is incredibly hard to think your way through, but it’s a way we act all the time. For example, think about planning a family reunion. If you work with a “predictive” world view (from a simple or complicated view of what a family reunion might be), you might create a proposal for the event, listing core outcomes you would have the event deliver. You might send that out to family members, get buy in from the most important decision-makers, and then work to deliver against your targets. To get buy-in you might have to create targets that avoid what most people name as the last reunion’s major failings: when the teenage cousins spiked the punch and got great aunt Clara drunk and when the twins fell off the deck and James broke his arm. In order to avoid these terrible things, you create a no-drunkenness target and a safety-first target. You eliminate all alcohol and call around to venues to check on their safety standards.

I’m guessing this is not the way you’d think about it. Our minds often turn naturally to complexity thinking when dealing with family events even when we spend most of our work time pretending we live in a complicated world. We’re more likely to learn from the past about what the system (in this case the extended family) is disposed to do. Teenagers are disposed to push the edges of the adult world in helpful and unhelpful ways. Little kids are disposed to use energy, often physically. The grown cousins are disposed to tell stories about being kids together. And so on. How could you take your current knowledge of the system to create a family reunion that was the most fun, without risking life and limb?

Here’s the next part of complexity theory. Now that you understand what the system is disposed to do, you create ways to attract the behaviours you want and repel the behaviours you don’t want. Teenagers like to push the boundaries of adulthood? You could create ways for them to engage that freedom without access to alcohol. Little kids need to burn energy? You’d put the reunion someplace where little kids could play whether it was sunny or raining. This is obvious, right?

So why is it that when we’re planning a corporate retreat, we don’t think that way? We tend to create project plans, outputs, targets. We tend to ignore the ways the system currently acts (and why) and instead focus on our aspirations for the system—the way it rightly should be acting. We put our energy into defining the future rather than understanding the present and what holds us in unhelpful patterns (and what might create more helpful ones).

Imagine planning a retreat with a complexity approach. You’d need to learn lots about the individuals and the patterns of their interaction and work. You’d need a sense of what sorts of things brought out their best and what sorts of things brought out their worst (here my ideas about biggest selves and smaller selves are one helpful lens). And you’d need to experiment with ways to create the conditions you wanted. You couldn’t get it right every time—especially if you were trying to do something that hadn’t been done before. But what evidence do we have that the complicated world of targets and outlines gets it right every time? By considering the “safe-to-fail” approach Snowden talks about, you can think about risk and reward in whole new ways. More on that next time.

Questions for you: Look back at the list I asked you to make at the beginning of this blog (and yes, I know you didn’t make one then—make it now). Which things on the list are simple? Which are complicated? Which are complex? Now just begin to check your mindset about them. Are you treating them differently? In what ways?

(Picture today is not just a shamelessly cute picture of one of our dogs, but a demonstration of the disposition of puppies to run on the beach.)

3 thoughts on “Complexity: decisions and dispositions”

  1. Carolyn Coughlin Carolyn Coughlin says:

    Cute dog (I happen to know he fetches like a retriever) and very helpful blog! I like it!

  2. Diana Renner says:

    I found the distinction between a predictive view and thinking about what the system is disposed to do very useful. I have been enjoying your blogs on complexity, thank you.

    1. Jennifer Garvey Berger says:

      Hi Diana–Thanks for that! I am really playing in my head with this idea about predictive thinking and disposition thinking. I’m finding it’s really shaping the way I make sense of my choices, which is really cool. I’m glad you’re finding these blogs helpful–they’re tricky to write!

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