In their book "Cracking Complexity", David Benjamin and David Komlos provide a practical approach to improving organizations leveraging insights from complexity science and years working in the trenches as executive consultants.
The approach is premised on complexity science which groups system dynamics into several distinct domains:
- Simple ordered domains
- Complicated ordered domains
- Complex unordered domains
- Chaotic domains
Of these four domains, the authors are concerned with Complex domain, which is characterized by unpredictable interrelationship of actors and actions. In this sort of domain, a business executive can not reliably map out actions to achieve a particular result. And importantly, unlike systems thinking (which is characteristic of Complicated domain) the interrelationships between actors and actions are not fully comprehensible ahead of time. These dynamics are messy, unstable, and unpredictable.
Many modern day challenges are complex. In fact, many challenges that involve more than one person working together are complex.
So, how do we crack a complex problem? The authors suggest an approach to complex problems that emphasizes co-creation in large groups.
The Complexity Formula
A foundational idea behind the formula is Ashby’s Law or the Law of Requisite Variety which states: Only variety destroys variety. “Ashby’s Law says you need to bring a matching amount of variety to the solving process.” In other words, a high-variety group that can collectively address the variety inherent in the issue to be solved. The Complexity Formula helps you to unlock the skills, knowledge, experience, and expertise of the people around you.
All the steps in the Formula are complementary and build one upon the next to deliver rapid leaps on complex issues.
The first five steps set things up. Steps six through nine are where a requisite-variety of people can spend a short amount of time—typically two days—to sense, absorb, think, decide, and then in Step ten to act on the complex problem.
Here are the ten steps:
- Acknowledge the Complexity
The first step is to determine exactly what kind of problem you are faced with. A complicated problem or a problem that is truly complex. The first step is “recognizing that there are no known answers, that no outsourced provider is going to figure it out for you—at least fast enough—and that the old way of figuring things out isn’t going to work anymore.”
- Construct A Really, Really Good Question
Frame the issue with a good question. A complex issue needs a question that addresses the complexity. “A good gut check on the question is how people react to it. Are they uncomfortable with it because it challenges the status quo, sets the bar high, or suggests a lot of work needs to be done? Conversely, are they completely comfortable with it because it’s easy to answer? Don’t necessarily retreat from what you think is a good question because people are reacting negatively, and don’t be satisfied if people aren’t pushing back.” Example: “What must we do in the next 12 months to drive necessary changes in mind-set, action, and behavior to fully realize the benefits of…?”
- Target A Requisite Variety of Solvers
Involve the right people. Identify the requisite variety of people needed to match and absorb the complexity. “Your goal is to include the necessary perspectives, characteristics, roles, functions, hierarchical levels, and so on. If you shortchange requisite variety, you’re setting yourself up for no or partial solution and weak execution.” The authors provide a system to be sure you’re getting the right people together.
- Localize the Solvers
Get everyone together face-to-face. It allows for neural synchronization. In Google’s team study, they found what distinguished high-performing teams from low-performing teams is not team cohesion, motivation, or average IQ, but rather frequent turn-taking in conversations and high social sensitivity toward what team members are thinking and feeling.
- Eliminate the Noise
Noise takes all forms: “too much information all at once; too much wrong or inaccurate information; and too much missing, ambiguous, unreliable, or fragmented information.” They recommend that we “Err on the side of too little research, too little data, information, and knowledge—invest the effort instead in the requisite variety of people who carry the tacit data banks and the powerful processors around between their two ears.”
- Agree on the Right Agenda
Do not preset the agenda. Once you get everyone together, begin by deciding what to talk about. “Let the group decide what they have to talk about in order to answer the question. Their first task together is agreeing on how to deconstruct the question into the right component parts to discuss.”
- Put people On A Collision Course
A highly engineered conversation—engineered serendipity. “Serendipity often happens where people, domains, and/or systems collide. And collisions can be engineered. When we talk about domains and systems colliding, we mean people from one domain or system bumping into people from another domain or system.”
- Advance Iteratively and Emergently
You must trust that the answers will emerge. “Your requisite variety group needs to operate with energy and an expectation that the right answers will arise from the right kinds of interactions together.” Also, “Having set their agenda, your group needs to go through that entire agenda once, then again, then again.” Three times is the number—more yields diminishing returns.
- Change How People Interact
Nothing will happen if the interactions between your group members are not productive ones. To be effective, they need to be “candid, incisive, unconstrained, unguarded, transparent, fierce, and focused.” That requires, “discipline and structure, right-sized teams (no more than 8), effective conversation roles, and environment where productive friction is expected and not frowned upon, and have a neutral note taker.”
- Translate Clarity and Insights into Action
“The actions that result from the use of the Complexity Formula fall into three categories: Things to do, things to try, and the newly revealed complexities.” The job in step ten is to categorize the solutions in the three categories and then to attack “each pile in the right way to make progress, to continue learning, and to get after the next big challenge.” Sometimes working on one complexity reveals yet another complexity that needs to be resolved.
This book offers practical advice that aligns well with modern ways of working. A team-oriented co-creation method develops relationships. These can form an invisible store of energy behind the goal, and can be stockpiled for later. The technique is practical, explicit, and can be applied in many circumstances. Its principles are consistent with most modern management theories surrounding complexity including "Team of Teams". These principles shift our focus from prediction (what actions we will need to take in the future), to capabilities (in particular what people need to have what relationships, information flow, and direction to achieve the mission).
The Cracking Complexity formula is a wonderfully practical technique to deploy if you can bring the right facilitation skills, the right people, and the right problem together.