Sys­tems think­ing for ef­fec­tive man­agers: the road less trav­elled

The Smart Manager - - Reading Room - by prashun dutta Prashun Dutta SAGE Pub­li­ca­tions Pvt Ltd 2017, 220 pgs, Paper­back

I, not hav­ing fared too well with ei­ther com­plex num­bers or com­plex sen­tences in my school days, was al­ways cir­cum­spect about com­plex­ity. I sup­pose I am not an ex­cep­tion and most of us are not too ea­ger to meet com­plex­ity. How­ever, as I soon learnt, com­plex­ity has an­other, more in­ter­est­ing, con­no­ta­tion.

A com­plex en­tity has the abil­ity to carry out com­plex tasks.

If one were to study the the­ory of evo­lu­tion one would be in­formed of the fact that com­plex­ity and evo­lu­tion tend to move in the same di­rec­tion. Evo­lu­tion has been al­ways ac­com­pa­nied by grow­ing com­plex­ity and with this growth in com­plex­ity, ca­pa­bil­ity to ac­com­plish more com­plex tasks de­vel­oped. For in­stance, no amoeba ever wrote po­etry or built a Taj Ma­hal but hu­man be­ings with their higher lev­els of com­plex­ity achieved these tasks and many more. So, while han­dling com­plex­ity is a dif­fi­cult task, growth in com­plex­ity re­sult­ing in a com­plex sys­tem sig­ni­fies in­creased abil­ity to per­form more com­plex tasks. A query, may be pedan­tic in na­ture, that arose in my mind was how are com­plex­ity and com­plex sys­tems re­lated? A com­plex sys­tem by virtue of its in­her­ent com­plex­ity is able to ex­e­cute com­plex tasks. Sys­tems we study are com­plex sys­tems and sit­u­a­tions we en­counter are char­ac­ter­ized by com­plex­ity.

I, rather for­tu­itously, sensed the sim­i­lar­ity of Si­mon’s as­ser­tion, as ex­plained bril­liantly through the watch­mak­ers’ al­le­gory, and evo­lu­tion mov­ing in tan­dem with com­plex­ity. When we have a con­stituent sub as­sem­bly, as men­tioned by Si­mon, we of­ten wit­ness an emer­gent that sig­ni­fies an added ca­pa­bil­ity avail­able at that level but not in its con­stituents. This then rolls up to a sys­tem at the next level that may again ex­hibit an emer­gent, thereby en­hanc­ing its ca­pa­bil­ity. As the sub­sys­tems roll up, one may as­sume that the abil­ity of the sys­tem in­creases in tan­dem with grow­ing com­plex­ity. We have al­ready men­tioned that evo­lu­tion from a sin­gle cel­lu­lar liv­ing en­tity to a com­plex be­ing like a hu­man be­ing oc­curs through the in­ter­me­di­ate sub­sys­tems that are sta­ble and can ex­ist on their own. So, given the way in which a com­plex struc­ture builds up, its abil­ity to per­form com­plex tasks also in­creases at every stage. Each sta­ble sub­sys­tem en­hances the com­plex­ity fur­ther and with each round, the sys­tem is able to achieve more. One of the tasks that this

added abil­ity equips us with is to han­dle com­plex­ity bet­ter and this, as I dis­cov­ered, is the se­cret of han­dling com­plex­ity.

So, while han­dling com­plex­ity is a dif­fi­cult task growth in com­plex­ity sig­ni­fies in­creased abil­ity to per­form even more com­plex tasks. On the one hand, com­plex­ity needs to be han­dled, while on the other, this level of in­ter­nal com­plex­ity equips me to han­dle this com­plex­ity bet­ter. There­fore, I need to en­hance my in­ter­nal com­plex­ity to han­dle ex­ter­nal com­plex­ity and the min­i­mum con­di­tion for sur­vival would be to match the com­plex­i­ties in­her­ent in the ex­ter­nal and in­ter­nal sys­tems. This match­ing then, is the way to han­dle com­plex­ity and this, to my mind, was a rev­e­la­tion, but the quest now was to de­ter­mine how one op­er­a­tional­izes this con­cept. Ob­vi­ously, if one were to ac­tu­ally count these, it would be fright­fully dif­fi­cult if not im­pos­si­ble, par­tic­u­larly when you con­sider how quickly man­agers need to de­cide. So the next best way, as men­tioned ear­lier, would be to get an or­di­nal level com­par­i­son where one could say that the com­plex­ity in a par­tic­u­lar sit­u­a­tion is less than, equal to or greater than in­ter­nal com­plex­ity lev­els. Ac­tu­ally, at a prac­ti­cal level, it would be a judge­ment but premised upon an in­formed as­sess­ment.

Equipped with this knowl­edge, I started to delve deeper and clar­ify the con­cept of com­plex­ity. I had un­der­stood that if my abil­ity to han­dle is, at least, as much as the com­plex­ity I en­counter then I will suc­ceed, else not. So we have two mea­sures, one for the com­plex­ity I face and the other for my in­ter­nal com­plex­ity that I shall bring to bear while solv­ing the prob­lem. If I know how to solve a sec­ond or­der dif­fer­en­tial equa­tion and I am given such a prob­lem to solve, I shall suc­ceed be­cause the com­plex­ity in­her­ent in the prob­lem and my abil­ity to han­dle that level of com­plex­ity has been matched. Does this im­ply that only if the two mea­sures are equal will I be able to man­age com­plex­ity prop­erly? It would in­deed be for­tu­itous if these matched since they would be ar­riv­ing at this junc­ture from two en­tirely dif­fer­ent ori­gins and paths.

Stafford Beer (1979), who has dis­cussed this in de­tail in his book, uses va­ri­ety as a mea­sure of com­plex­ity. Va­ri­ety, as men­tioned, is the num­ber of states a sys­tem can be in. As men­tioned, the na­ture and quan­tum of in­ter­con­nec­tions are, I feel, equally im­por­tant de­ter­mi­nants of com­plex­ity and hence I have used the com­bined mea­sure of com­plex­ity. How­ever, the learn­ing gar­nered from Beer’s book is equally ap­pli­ca­ble and this sec­tion is based on the same. The usual sit­u­a­tion we face in in­ter­act­ing with com­plex sit­u­a­tions is that the ex­ter­nal (to the en­tity) com­plex­ity ex­ceeds the in­ter­nal com­plex­ity of the en­tity. If it were any other way, this dis­cus­sion would not have been a se­ri­ous one. In the process of man­ag­ing such a com­plex sit­u­a­tion, we can ei­ther re­duce the ex­ter­nal com­plex­ity or in­crease the in­ter­nal com­plex­ity or do both and thereby equate the two.

Let me ex­plain with a sim­ple ex­am­ple that ev­ery­body will be able to re­late to. Let us sup­pose that I am an ex­ec­u­tive in the mar­ket­ing depart­ment of a large com­pany. I have trained for mu­sic ear­lier in life and am pas­sion­ate about it as I am about ten­nis, a game I have been play­ing for many years now. My fam­ily and I are so­cially ac­tive and at­tend a cou­ple of events every week, and all this does not leave me much time for my other pas­sion read­ing. Now there are only 24 hours in a day and my of­fice is at a con­sid­er­able dis­tance from my home, I am not left with much time to pur­sue all the ac­tiv­i­ties as well or as much as I would like to. So I need to re­duce or at­ten­u­ate, as Beer (1979) puts it, the ex­ter­nal va­ri­ety and en­hance mine to be able to man­age the sit­u­a­tion prop­erly.

While han­dling com­plex­ity is a dif­fi­cult task growth in com­plex­ity sig­ni­fies in­creased abil­ity to per­form even more com­plex tasks.

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