Perceived Complexity is NOT Reality

In reality when we perceive the complexity of an organisation we can do so in two very different ways.  The problem is that we often blur the boundary between these perceptions and this can often lead to developing and applying ideas, supposedly based upon complexity science in an inappropriate and ineffective way. There are two ways in which we perceive complexity.

‘Mind’s Eye’ Complexity

It is a fact that the human brain has limited cognitive abilities[1]. This means that whenever we try to get our heads around the dynamics of an organisation with more than about 7 to 10 people we cannot comprehend all of the strands of the behaviour, and we become bewildered. We then throw our hands in the air and say “it’s too complex”! This is a natural human response; however it does not mean that the organisation is objectively too complex. To compound this problem physiologists have identified many quirks in our thinking that effect our judgement. This leads to the fact that in general we make judgements based upon emotion, bias, selective memory and use only one or two characteristics of the system we are judging[2]. The result can be summed up as, ‘we see what we want to see’ and this is what I call, the ‘I know complexity when I see it’, syndrome. The truth is, you don’t!

Science Based (more objective) Complexity

There is no generalised scientific definition of complexity, and understanding complexity is itself highly complex. However complexity science has used analytic techniques, modelling and simulations to identify some reasonably defined and quantifiable traits that all complex systems share.  There is a growing wealth of mathematical and conceptual understanding of complexity, and to truly understand how complex, complex behaviour can be one needs to study the science. In complexity science, ‘I know complexity when I see it’ is just not good enough as a basis for scientific analysis. Using complexity science we aim to judge complex behaviour in a more objective, consistent and quantifiable way.
The truth is that there is a vast gulf between our ‘mind’s eye’ perception of complexity and that based upon the science. So our subjective understanding of ideas such as chaos, edge of chaos, self-organisation, emergence and many other concepts are not the same as the more defined and quantifiable views of complexity science. This means for example that we may perceive chaos when in fact the science would suggest that the behaviour is probably firmly in the domain of, ‘normal’ complex behaviour, and we perceive emergence when it is in fact behaviour that we could have predicted from the system components and interaction and therefore, in scientific terms, not emergent at all. This difference in perception is of key importance because the science suggests that certain complex behaviours are seen to be associated with specific characteristics, for example:
  • Sensitivity to change is associated with bifurcation cascade (extreme complexity)
  • General complex behaviour is associated with feedback and non-linearity.
  • Self-organisation is associated with the region between bifurcation cascade and chaos (sometimes termed, ‘edge of chaos’)
  • Emergence is associated with highly complex behaviour (approaching bifurcation cascade)
  • Predictably and stability is associated with lower level complex behaviour and periodicity.
So if we incorrectly categorise an aspect of an organisation’s behaviour using a ‘mind’s eye’ approach then we are likely to:
  • Make erroneous inferences when using the complexity science view.
  • Develop approaches to addressing complex behaviour based upon these erroneous inferences
  • Apply the developed methods in an inappropriate and ineffective manner.
I fear that this is what is happening in many areas of the software delivery industry. Many people are making erroneous judgements when attempting to use complexity science to help address complexity issues that are perceived by the mind’s eye. This problem stems from the understandable fact that they do not fully appreciate the complexities of complexity science.
For an example of this problem please click here.

[1] Neuroscience has shown experimentally that our brain regulates the amount of energy it uses and this means that it restrains the level to which we think about things.  If the brain senses that it is using too much energy it will reduce our cognitive abilities.

[2] There is a lot of experimental evidence for this.

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