Here’s a way to categorise the things we work with (from Dave Snowden), and the things we struggle with:
Things we can make sense of quickly and easily, for which no particular expertise is required beyond what we’d all be expected to have in our culture.
A light switch is a good example of ‘simple’. It’s obvious how it works, and what it does. On is on. Off is off. And that’s it. There are no other ways to use a switch. No nuance, no special techniques, no room for creativity. A switch is just what it is.
We can learn how to deal with simple phenomena easily – a simple set of instructions, a little while shown it by another person, and we’re done.
Complicated phenomena, such as the engine of a car, require something different. Most of the time an engine, to most of us, is a simple phenomenon. We turn the ignition, and off we go. But when the engine breaks down, or needs tuning, it becomes clear to us that it’s not simple at al.
Quite specific and broad-ranging expertise (theoretical and practical know-how) is required to work with a complicated situation. Any fault may have a number of causes, and it takes discernment and skill to both to discover the causes and to fix them. Many years of study may be required, and lots of practice. But built into our understanding of complicated phenomena is the understanding that there is a cause which leads directly to the problem and, with the right skilfulness and tools, dealing with the cause gets the engine working again.
We learn how to deal with complicated phenomena by developing expertise.
In complex phenomena, the link between causes and effects is much less straightforward and, in most cases, there is no way of saying that this cause produced this effect.
Organisations behave as complex phenomena much of the time, in large part brought about by human free will, our mysteriousness even to ourselves, and the complex web of interactions that changes us even as change things. Because every relationship and conversation I’m in affects me as I affect the conversation and relationship, and because this is happening in many interactions simultaneously, there’s really no way of knowing quite what causes anything.
Expertise can only get us a little way here. What to do has an emergent quality. We discover it out only as we engage in doing and experimenting, and it relies on our openness and our capacity to feel our way.
With chaotic phenomena, such as occur in many sudden and unexpected crises, we can’t find any link between cause and effect. There’s no way of knowing what will happen from what we do, but we have to act anyway. Best practice and expertise can’t help us.
It’s our ability to come up with novel actions and new ways of making sense, to free ourselves from our rigidity and habit, to observe accurately and truthfully, and to trust ourselves in the middle of not knowing what’s going on that serve us here.
So much of our difficulty, and our suffering, comes from failing to see that there are these different kinds of phenomena and that they require different kinds of response. In particular, in so many of our organisations and in our politics, it’s our determination to treat everything as if it’s simple or complicated that gets us into so much trouble.
Perhaps it shouldn’t surprise us that our determination to understand everything as a machine where an expert can determine cause and effect – the same instinct that leads us to punishment and reward, carrot and stick, bonuses and KPIs, process and best practice, behaviour frameworks and forced-ranking performance ratings, rigid hierarchies and command-and-control – doesn’t seem to help us nearly as much as we imagine in our organisational lives.
It’s only when we see the limits of expertise, in so many of the domains that matter in our lives, that we can open ourselves to responding in a way that’s called for. And that’s why working on our development matters so much – because development is always a process of loosening our grip on what we’re most certain about, and most rigid about, and opening more and more to the world as it presents itself to us rather than the world as we’ve concluded it to be.