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It’s Time to Give 2016 The Finger…

December 22, 2016

Hello Good People,

Pretty much everyone I speak to at the moment is so over 2016. Everyone seems to be pretty bruised and battered and limping to the supposed finish-line of Christmas.

And rightfully so: 2016 has been a pretty bruising year.

It’s been full of tumult and unexpected events on a global scale. A whole heap of stuff has gone down that very few folk saw coming.

When an onslaught of unexpectedness happens we experience what is known as cognitive dissonance. Cognitive dissonance occurs when our brains struggle to interpret new information that does not correlate with or confirm our existing knowledge or beliefs.

As I suggested in my book* The Light and Fast Organisation, cognitive dissonance is occurring en masse. It is de rigueur for the VUCA world. As everything changes at an ever-increasing speed, the frequency of occasions where our brains receive information that does not correlate with our existing knowledge is only going to increase.

*A good last-minute Christmas present perhaps? Order it here before the end of Tuesday 20th December and it should arrive in the post in time, if you live in Australia.

So what can you do?

Well, you have two options:

  1. You can complain about it, and pray that things will return to the comfortable way that they once were; or
  2. You can get curious about it: you can accept that the comfort of yesterday is gone, and won’t be returning for some time.

If you wanna go with option 1, I’m afraid I can’t help you. But if you’re up for option 2, then read on. Because this piece* will hopefully reset the lens through which you see and do things in 2017.

*It’s adapted from an article I wrote in a newly released magazine published by my mates Jason Fox and Kim Lam. The mag is called The Cleverness Biannual and the theme of the first issue is clarity and its paradoxical twin, ambiguity. It features some great writing by some interesting folk, none-more-so than Oliver Burkeman, author of The Antidote. Hint: the mag would make an excellent Christmas present for deep-thinkers looking for some provocative holiday reading: you can purchase copies of it here.

In 1948, American mathematician Warren Weaver wrote a foundational paper that was in many regards at least a half-century ahead of its time. In his paper, entitled Science and Complexity, Weaver identified and divided the progression of modern western science through three critical stages. The insight from this paper has crucial relevance for today’s fast-changing world which, particularly in recent times, has seemingly gone completely off kilter.

Weaver described the first period of modern science (from the seventeenth to nineteenth centuries) as one where science was focussed on problems of simplicity.

In other words, scientific understanding focussed on the relationships between variables, over finite periods of time. In their efforts to understand these relationships, scientists were essentially practising both reductionism, which is the practice of reducing things to their simplest practical theory and form, and centralism, which is aligned with reductionism and is where everything is concentrated into one central ‘thing’. This reductionist science led to numerous and incredible technological breakthroughs, the sum of which we often refer to as the industrial revolution.

The second period of modern science (during the first half of the twentieth century) Weaver described as being focussed on uncertainty and problems of disorganised complexity.

In other words, problems that were comprised of relationships between a large number of variables that occur at a macro or micro level that were beyond what people could see and completely understand. Fundamental to this understanding was the notion that the way in which the variables relate to one another was random and chaotic. At the time, despite not being able to see things such as individual molecules or energy waves, Weaver suggested these problems could be understood by using high-level conceptual theory, leading to advances in a wide array of fields such as thermodynamics, genetics and quantum mechanics.

The third period of modern science (beginning at the midway point of the twentieth century, the time at which he wrote the paper, and therefore essentially making this third period a prediction) Weaver suggested would be focussed on solving problems of organised complexity. That is, problems which are comprised of relationships between a large number of variables, but recognising that these variables are interconnected and interdependent, rather than random and chaotic.

Weaver referred to these as complex problems, which consist of potentially hundreds and thousands of components that are interdependent and interacting with one another on a multitude of levels.

My interpretation of Weaver’s first, second and third scientific interpretations.

Weaver recognised (remembering that this was in 1948, in the immediate aftermath of the second world war) that the nineteenth century scientific techniques (which focused on simplicity and reductionism) were too simple and that the early twentieth century techniques (which focused on randomness and chaos) were too macro to deeply understand prevalent global issues, ranging from currency and commodity price stabilisation through to war strategies and the behavioural patterns of social groups.

Weaver suggested that it was these highly complex problems with interconnected and interdependent variables that lay in-between the space of simplicity and randomness that were the most important challenges for science to solve.

Although Weaver’s work had great impact and influence in the academic world of network science and complexity theory, a wider-spread adoption of his thinking remained relatively remiss.

But now, more than ever before after a tumultuous 2016, we need to understand this third approach to science that Weaver identified.

For it is only this third approach that will enable us any chance of being able to venture into the unknown of 2017 without experiencing complete overwhelm and dissonance.

The desperate need for this new way of understanding today’s fast-changing world is because it seems that our current approach to understanding the nature of the world is still very much stuck in the polarity of the first and second scientific approaches.

We seem to only be able to view things as either simple or chaotic; we seem unable, and indeed unwilling, to view things in that murky, ambiguous middle ground that is the complex.

We are addicted to this polarity.

In this polarity, we see the world either as composed of problems of varying simplicity, which can be understood and ultimately reduced to a finite end point of total clarity (or, if you prefer, an end point of one truth), or as composed of problems of inherent disorganisation and randomness, which can only be understood at high conceptual levels and ultimately elevated to a finite end point of total chaos (or, if you prefer, an end point of no truth).

But what if we were to instead employ Weaver’s third approach of organised complexity as a way to explore the ambiguity that infinitely interconnected and interdependent variables create?

Would this, I wonder, enable us to understand that there are no finite end points, but rather an infinite and networked array of interconnected points, which in turn allow for many, multiple truths?

Could this be the lens through which we need to view 2017 and onwards?

For me, and hopefully you too, the answer is a resounding yes. It can only be through this lens, with its understanding of networks of infinitely interconnected and interdependent variables, that we can begin to appreciate the many truths of ambiguity, and let go of our desire for clarity.

So, here’s to you considering this approach for forthcoming new year.

As for me, I’ll be doing what I always do at this time of the year, which is to head into the mountains. This is actually where we’ll be going:

I’ll be heading in there with a bunch of clever folk who are keen to deeply ponder the wicked problems that this organised complexity will throw at us in 2017.

I’ll be running a whole bunch more of these programs in 2017 and 2018, both for private corporate clients and for open independent consultants. Let us know if this is something that you might be interested-in in the year ahead.

Wishing you all a peaceful and ponderous Christmas and New Year.


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