Systems Thinking 4: Complex, Not Complicated

On a recent trip to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival I spotted a whole mess of geese flying overhead, so I quickly snapped some shots with my iPhone. Here’s one of the pictures I took. Geese flying in their famous “V” formation have always fascinated me. When I see geese flying together like this I wonder if they had to have a lengthy meeting, or perhaps a project kick off, to arrange the formation, agree who is flying in which position, the direction and exact route, and when various birds will take the lead during which part of the journey. Maybe they have a shared data storage drive where each goose can log in and review the diagrams of the flight, and perhaps there are oodles of Power Point presentations explaning the vision, mission and purpose, yadda, yadda, yadda.

Nah, probably not. In spite of the fact that I’m pretty sure that geese DON’T have such project management meetings and agreements, geese flocks in flight look pretty well organized to me. And, based on personal observation, there doesn’t seem to be a lot of squabbling over direction or roles and responsibilities. Every goose seems pretty intent on just getting where ever they are going – together – following the leader, with the whole team arranged for maximum distance with minimum effort. That’s the kind of focused teamwork I aim to have on the projects I work on. As much as I am tempted to take charge and boss people around, I find that this kind of effortless collaboration is only possible when we’re open to different ways of working together. These “different ways” are what I’ve been calling “systems thinking” in this series of blogs.

When we’re kids we learn about cause and effect. Fall down and scrape our knee, it hurts, and it hurts right away. But in the real world of projects, and business in general, cause and effect are not connected in quite to tidy a way. I’m not saying we should abandon linear models of reality, just augment them with additional ways of understanding reality. Some things do move faster when pushed harder (certain ‘unresponsive’ – let’s not call them irresponsible right off the bat – people, for example), but not every system responds in a way that makes it easy to see the relationship between our inputs and the outputs. We need more sophisticated ways of understanding the world in order to make better decisions in leading and managing projects.

In fact, maybe leading and managing aren’t even the right words. Maybe we’re facilitating a group of individuals in collaborating more effectively. Maybe the notion of leadership is inappropriate when you working with a group of people who all share a commitment to a future possibility and are determined to find ways to make that possibility into a reality. Someone has to make the decisions, of course, and not everything can be left up to consensus. But decision-making doesn’t have to be done by one-and-only-one leader. Different people may be better equipped to make better decisions in different areas. Maybe leadership is a temporary responsibility that rotates among team members, like the shared leadership of a flock of geese.

Oh, and when it comes to decision-making, don’t be so quick to think we’re rational. Some of the brain research I’ve come across suggests that around 80% of our decisions are made by the non-conscous parts of our brain. To me this means that our deep-seated mental models are driving decisions even when we are not consciously aware that they are doing so. If this is true then it’s all the more important that we embed a variety of different mental models into our thinking. Chaos, complexity, non-linearity, emergent behavior, and systems thinking in general, offer a rich collection of ways of understanding reality that simple cause-and-effect and complicated command-and-control don’t fit very well, if at all. For this reason alone it makes sense to equip ourselves with a well-stocked toolbox of mental models that can better prepare us for the complex circumstances in which our projects operate.

If you want to read more of my musings about systems thinking, I wrote a couple of longer articles for recently on these topics:

Catalytic Mechanism, or how itty-bitty changes can make big honkin’ differences.

Systems Thinking, including chaos, complexity and emergent behavior.

Just because it LOOKS complicated doesn’t mean it is.


1 thought on “Systems Thinking 4: Complex, Not Complicated”

  1. Love this. Share the leadership. Decision-making, problem-solving, product development, negotiation – at the root aren’t all these the same? Each one of these requires that you go through a series of steps. At each of these steps, you are benefited by a uniquire leadership style. Let the person who is naturally inclined with the best leadership style lead that phase of the process. Do that, and you have v-formation magic.

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