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This Is The Most Important Thing I’ve Ever Written

September 30, 2016

*Yes, seriously. And it is rather serious.

But just quickly, before we get started on the most important newsletter I’ve ever written, this could be the most important event you’ll attend all year:

Where will you be on November 29th? You’ll be in Melbourne, right? Of course you will! Because you’d be mad not to go to Dr Jason Fox’s first ever Cleverness event. It’ll be something rather special, very unique, and definitely not to be missed, because, well, Jase is a dude who really understands the issues that I’m writing about in the newsletter.

Hello Friends,

So… here’s the truth.

Things have been keeping me awake at night of late.

Things that, no matter how hard I try, as I lay in my bed, twisting and turning under the sheets, I cannot reconcile in mind. Things that have me really, really, worried.

You see, what initially began a number of years ago as a vague suspicion, has in more recent times morphed into my own full-blown truth. So what is this truth, pray tell?

My truth* is this: Our traditional western approach to the world is fundamentally flawed. As in it’s fcuked. Broken. Kaput. C’est finis.

*Well, sort of. In my world, I hold multiple truths, some of which are conflicting. This is but one of them.

Whoah, now that’s a pretty brutal opening to a piece of writing!

Well, yes, but before you bale, just hear me out.

For a long time now, our society has been obsessed with a desire for knowledge, tangibility, structure, categorisation, order, simplicity and linearity.

We’ve obsessed over it; we’ve had an insatiable thirst for it.

Looking back over the modern history of mankind, it’s easy to see where this desire stems from: prior to modern western thinking, the somewhat primitive belief held that the natural state of the world was chaos and disorder.

Then along came modern western thinking which introduced the notion that only through the hand of man can the chaotic nature of the world be simplified and ordered*.

*Much of this desire is I think based in Aristotlean logic**, which has an underlying notion of essentialism—that being the belief that within every thing lies an immutable ‘essence’. From this belief we have seen our understanding of the world ordered and reduced into categories and hierarchies. Essentialism led to early scientific principles of centralism (which is the practice of reducing things to their simplest practical theory and form) and reductionism (like essentialism, where everything is concentrated into one central thing).
**Don’t believe me? Even to this day, we still use the categories of genus and species, first identified by Aristotle more than 2,300 years ago.

And so we set about giving order to an otherwise chaotic world, mostly by building things.

And boy oh boy did we build things! We built lots and lots of things.

We built physical things like roads and bridges and boats and factories and schools and computers. And we built conceptual things, like ideas and theories and categories and laws and institutions and organisations.

And as we got really good at doing it, we started getting very clever about it.

We started thinking that literally any problem or any issue or any thing in our world could be reduced by our own smarts to something that we could understand, identify, categorise, manipulate and control—and in doing so, build a solution for.

Indeed, we started seeing the world through a very narrow and single lens. We started rendering any problem we encountered as being only technical in nature, to which we responded by building a corresponding and often pre-determined technical solution

In short, we started to see the ordered world as very linear, consisting entirely of straight line Point A to Point B predictable cause and effect relationships*, which could be managed and controlled via the built form (both physical and conceptual).

*Another way to think of linearity is where the whole is the sum of its parts. As an example, if you were trying to calculate the total volume of an aircraft which must be internally pressurised for passenger safety, you’d simply add up the volumes of the plane’s compartments.

Of course, these technical problems and solutions weren’t always simple—in fact, often times the solutions were comprised of thousands or even millions of different components, making them incredibly complicated—but they were still essentially linear in nature.

In other words, even though we saw our most difficult conundrums as being complicated, they were still only comprised of multiple linear problems occurring at the same time. Regardless of how complicated they were we believed we could always reduce them down to the simple and ordered.

And so we thought we had everything sorted!

But in actual fact we’ve been kidding ourselves all along.

Yep, that’s right. We’ve deluded ourselves with our approach.

Viewing the world with such polarity, as if it exists on a linear spectrum which at one end is simple and ordered (with complicated as an extension of multiple simplicities) and at the other end is chaotic and disordered is a bit like suggesting that ice cream only comes in two flavours. Which is ridiculous*.

*Because there are more than just two flavours. As an irrelevant aside, Wikipedia tells us that there are actually 42 flavours. Or is this irrelevant? Well, not quite. There are an infinite array of flavours and combinations, making the problem of identifying them all more than just complicated. All of which illustrates the point that I’m making in this newsletter—which will be revealed shortly.

But regardless of how deluded and polar our linear approach to viewing the world is, I think that right now many of us feel as if things are tipping from the simple and the ordered and back into chaos and disorder*.

*And rightfully so, especially if you rely primarily on mainstream media for your source of news consumption. Which is why the concept of the VUCA storm has gained so much traction in business circles, especially in the northern hemisphere (and to a lesser degree in the southern hemisphere, no doubt little of which can be attributed to this marvellous website).

Which brings me back to the things that have me really, really worried.

The primary cause of my worry is that in response to this polarised world view, and the perception of a shift back towards chaos and disorder, we continue to see things through a linear lens of predictability and cause and effect, meaning that we continue to only build technical solutions for the world’s problems. But what if building technical solutions, no matter how complicated the situations and the solutions are, is no longer the right approach?

Well, that’s the situation that we have today.

We’re trying to tackle a multitude of incredibly complex problems under the false belief that they are merely complicated problems (and therefore worthy of complicated solutions).

Now, you might think that there’s little difference between things that are complicated and things that are complex, indeed that the two terms are synonymous. However, nothing could be further from the truth.

There is a huge difference.

Remembering that complicated things are still essentially linear problems, they can always be deduced, monitored, and predicted through the use of cause and effect logic. No matter how complicated the problem might be, as long as you have the resources at hand, the problem can always be solved.

Complex problems, on the other hand, are of an entirely different nature.

Complex problems are comprised of multiple interconnected components, and, most crucially, they cannot be resolved using reductionist cause and effect logic. In short, complex problems are non-linear, which means that they cannot be predicted, and they cannot be easily managed and controlled* via the built form.

*They can be influenced, but not controlled. We’ll delve into this in the next post.

My very real concern is the endemic failure at a broad institutional level to understand the fundamental differences between linearity/complicated and non-linearity/complexity.

To illustrate these differences, let’s consider the following lists:

Firstly, here are five things which are complicated:

  1. the mechanics of a car’s internal combustion engine
  2. the mapped organisational charts of most companies
  3. the process of getting my three year old daughter Lilly dressed for kindy
  4. your company’s intranet
  5. the manufacturing process of your iPhone

And now, here are five things which are complex:

  1. the subtle and nuanced movements of air across the car’s body as it is propelled along a road by its internal combustion engine
  2. the actual organisational network topology of most companies
  3. the process of understanding why it is that on some days Lilly loves going to kindy, but on other days she hates it
  4. the world wide web
  5. the billions upon billions of connections with people all around the world that you can make on your iPhone

Do you see the difference between the two lists?

In the first, we have things which, even if they are complicated—like the internal combustion engine—have an immediate and apparent cause and effect relationship and which can be reduced, simplified, categorised and predicted and, if desired, have a process or methodology that can be replicated, time and time again.

In the second list, we have things which have no immediate or apparent cause and effect relationship, and which cannot be reduced, simplified, categorised and predicted, and, even if we so desired, cannot be exactly replicated time and time again.

In the first list, we have things which are relatively static; in the second, things which are incredibly dynamic.

In the world of complexity science, which entails, not surprisingly, the study and understanding of complexity, the dynamic nature of complex things is known as emergence.

Whereas in the simple and ordered/complicated linear world, where things are the sum of all of their parts, in the complex world, emergent things are other than the sum of their parts. Most importantly, things that are emergent cannot be readily predicted, nor replicated.

So… what does all of this mean?

What this means is that we’re taking the wrong approach to most of the world’s problems. It explains why so many unexpected and unpredictable things are emerging on a more frequent basis (which gives us that sense of a tipping towards chaos).

What this means is that traditional interventionist responses to problems such as the Global Financial Crisis/Great Recession and the Arab Spring and the Syrian civil war and the European immigration crisis either don’t have the impact that they used to have in similar circumstances, or that they have completely unintended impacts which nobody ever saw coming*.

*Try and list all of the unexpected things that have occurred as a result of the above crises, and you will be awake at night for a very, very, very long time.

Finally! The actual point of this newsletter…

What this means for the world of organisations and the world of work is that we are mistaken in thinking that our problems are complicated, but not complex.

What this means is that our traditional methods of forecasting and strategising and planning and leading are not as effective as they used to be, and in many instances these methods have unintended impacts which nobody ever saw coming.

What this means for the sphere of organisational development is that traditional tried and tested technical solutions—things such as developing leadership competencies and implementing structured cultural change initiatives—are not going to be as effective* as they once were; at least not if they are engineered and built using a cause and effect logic.

*they might still be nice-to-haves, but they will not be the golden ticket to ensuring your organisation succeeds into the future.

What this also means is that an inordinate amount of the circa US $250 billion spent annually across the globe on traditional organisational development and management consulting is largely wasted.

So where am I going with this?

Well, it’s not easy for me to say this about an industry that I have been part of for a long time, but here goes:

There is currently an epic failure in business management thinking which is endangering many of the world’s once productive and profitable businesses.

Not surprisingly, the failure has its roots in simple/complicated  linear thinking. Thinking that is obsessed with knowledge, tangibility, structure, categorisation and order. Thinking that is obsessed with engineered*, technical solutions. Thinking that is obsessed with building things as solutions to complicated problems.

*Engineers, don’t get me wrong, you are awesome. You design and build some pretty wicked stuff. It’s just that engineering alone is not going to be enough.

My estimate is that if your organisation subscribes to linear ways of thinking and organising, you’ve got no more than three years, five at the absolute max, to change your perspective and change the ways you operate.

And I don’t mean that when that three or five years is up you have simply started thinking about how you might change your perspective and reorganise your business. I mean that that in that period you have already done all of that, and are ready to face and interact with the world—future ready, if you will.

So… you really don’t have much time.

OK, so where do we begin?

Well, the good news is that many of you have already begun.

I was speaking at AHRI’s annual conference in Brisbane last month, and when I asked how many of the audience were currently working in an organisation undergoing a transformation initiative, at least 80 per cent of the 400 or so member audience put up their hands.

That’s awesome—it means that there is a good level of recognition about the pressing need for organisational shifts in thinking and responding to change.

The not so great news however is that many organisations see the need for this transformation through a linear lens. Many see the problems as only being complicated, which can be solved using cause and effect logic. Many are getting busy at building traditional, technical solutions in the same way they’re always done it. But sadly, they will not work. Sure, they will give a whole bunch of folk a whole bunch of work to do, but they won’t actually work.

OK smartarse*, so what’s the solution?

*for my dear American readers, that’s Australian for smartass.

The solution is for us to stop trying to build solutions. If only we could cease and desist with our obsession over cause and effect logic.

What if we could restrain our want to immediately start building solutions, and instead get a better understanding of and feel for the complexity that is enveloping us?

What if we could subjugate our interventionist approach which tells us that in order to create better leaders we need to identify better leadership competencies and build better leadership development programs*, and that in order to create a better workplace culture, we need to identify better cultural values and build a better workplace culture initiative*?

*and in doing so waste a shiteload of money, and then repeat the process in another 3-5 years, ad infinitum.
**and again, in doing so waste a shiteload of money, and then repeat the process in another 3-5 years, ad infinitum. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying workplace culture isn’t important (it is very important!). I’m just saying that it can’t be artificially constructed.

What if instead we understand that such things cannot be built, but rather, by necessity of this complex world, can only be emergent? What if we understand that whilst we can’t build solutions, we can tinker and influence and experiment with certain conditions and factors to enable favourable outcomes to emerge?

Now that, my friends, would be a solution.

To actually stand back and let go of our obsession with building technical solutions and to instead get a feel for the nature of the complex world around us before we start designing and tinkering and experimenting is a very un-western thing to do.

And yet it is what we all must do.

We must get a better sense of the landscape upon which our organisations exist and understand the true complexities of both it and of the age within which we live.

An ability to sense and understand the interconnectedness of literally everything* in today’s hyper-networked world is what will enable us to differentiate between the complicated and the complex, and it will make all the difference—in short, it will make us future ready.

*every minute, 10,000 devices—things like smartphones and fridges and toilets and airplanes and road sensors—are connecting to the internet for the first time. That’s roughly 14 million new devices connecting to the internet everyday, or if you prefer, 5 billion devices every year.

For the foreseeable future, this is my world.

It’s all I’ll be doing.

I hope you’ll stick around for the ride.

PS—if the content of this newsletter has intrigued you, then keep an eye out for the next few. We’ll go deep into the world of hyper-connected networks, which will help you to develop an understanding of how to read this complex landscape around us. And for those of you embarking on organisational transformations and restructurings, we’ll delve into how to go about this using non-linear, complex approaches.

PPS—not yet subscribed? Then do so here.

PPPS—keen to read my book The Light and Fast Organisation: A New Way of Dealing with Uncertainty? Then you can buy it here and here. Curious as to what Light and Fast actually is? It’s a mindset and methodology for moving quickly and successfully through a complex, non-linear networked landscape.

PPPPS—keen to see how I work with organisations to get future-ready? Check out my 2016 guidebook, which breaks down what I do, how I do it with you, and how much it costs.

PPPPPS—you got this far, so you must like long-form! Here‘s the best long-form writer out there I reckon. You simply must read this, as it will blow your mind!

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