Systems thinking for effective managers: the road less travelled
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.