How to Deal With Complexity Day-to-Day

Coping with Complexity
In two previous articles I described this process for addressing complex ‘wicked’ problems collectively:

Collective Complex-Environment Problem Resolution Process

  1. Crafting and sending a compelling invitation: to anyone with passion about and something to potentially contribute to the problem’s resolution
  2. Drafting the issue topology/framework: research what we know, the breadth of the problem and possible aspects to address
  3. Training: of participants in Open Space and other methods, practices and capacities for complex problems
  4. Opening session: issue statement, opportunity for participants to suggest aspects of the problems or issue for ‘conversations’, assigning time and place for each conversation, mapping scheduled conversations to the pre-developed topology/framework for the issue
  5. Marketplace: time for participants to review which conversations are where & when and discuss and decide which to attend
  6. Working sessions: conversations, each with an assigned scribe keeping notes and governed by the ‘vote with your feet’ rule (you can move from one conversation to another that seems to be more valuable or to which you feel you can contribute more, without repercussions or causing offense)
  7. Results and reflections sessions: ‘journal’ of conversations is provided to and read by each participant; participants set personal action agendas
  8. Collective and collaborative actions: are proposed by all; participants volunteer for proposed collective & collaborative actions/projects
  9. Personal actions: participants, informed by the conversations and knowledge of planned collective and collaborative actions, are trusted to decide upon, organize and implement appropriate additional personal actions

and this process for solving complex problems individually when they’re in your job description:

Individual Complex-Environment Problem Resolution Process

  1. Identify the Customer: Determine who the internal and external ‘customers’ are — how they can reasonably be segmented. 
  2. Research & Observe: Study the status quo to understand what is really happening, what the real processes and workarounds are.
  3. Converse: Have lots of iterative discussions with different customer segments to clarify your understanding of what is happening and why. 
  4. Define and Articulate the Needs & ‘Problems’: When identified needs and problems are individual, just observe and provide the individual with your ideas and the benefit of your experience. For needs and problems that are shared and require (and justify) a more substantial ‘solution’ process, rank them by customers’ assessment of their severity and urgency. Feed these back to the customers to make sure you understood. 
  5. Imagine Ways of Addressing These Needs and Problems: With the creative minds in the organization (or outside it, if necessary) brainstorm possible ways of addressing these needs and problems. 
  6. Create a Future State Vision If Your Imagined Solutions Were Implemented: Tell a compelling story of how things could/would happen if the solutions you imagined in step 5 were implemented. Then deconstruct how to get there and use it to budget the money, time and resources needed to implement them. 
  7. Experiment and Prototype: Start small — your imagined solutions will never be perfect, and small-scale experiments and prototypes will allow you to refine the solution before spending all the resources on an imperfect solution. 
  8. Scale Up: Expand the pilot to all users who share the need or share and appreciate the problem. Make adoption voluntary. Let the users own and collectively self-manage the solution.

These two approaches are arguably better than the approaches usually used in these situations: small, uninformed groups at the top of the hierarchy prejudge the problem, bring in outside experts and impose so-called ‘best practice’ solutions on everyone else. When they fail, the people subjected to these failed approaches then find workarounds to cope as best as possible with the chronic, unresolved situation.

Both of the above complex problem resolution processes apply the general approaches suggested by Dave Snowden, Otto Scharmer, Francisco Varela, the Open Space methodology leaders, James Surowiecki, the Freakonomics team, Thomas Princen, Hugh Brody and others, for dealing with complex situations and for imagining possibilities for addressing them.

Is there a way of generalizing these two approaches to create a simple methodology for coping with all the complex situations we face in our day-to-day lives? After all, since all natural and social systems are inherently complex, such situations are far more prevalent than the simple or merely complicated situations we are taught (in school and work ‘courses’ and through the ‘conventional wisdom’ imparted by parents and colleagues) to handle.

A couple of years ago, Cyndy at MouseMusings suggested a catchphrase Sense, Self-Control, Understand, Question, Imagine, Offer, Collaborate, that seems to come very close to comprising such a methodology. What is missing? Conversation, especially early in the process, in understanding and imagining. Learning — acquiring the capacities you need to be able to deal with the particular situation at hand. Articulating the real, underlying issue, which is often different from the symptom or immediate situation. Opening/letting go/Letting-Self-Change. Reflecting before acting. Imagining alternatives and success. Intending. Identifying and getting what you need to succeed. Planning the action steps one at a time.

If we were to merge these missing ingredients into the above catchphrase, we’d get something like this:

Dealing With Complexity Day-to-Day

  1. Sense: Observe, listen, pay attention, open up your senses, perceive everything that has a bearing on the issue at hand. Connect.
  2. Suspend: Don’t prejudge. Don’t lose your cool. Focus.
  3. Learn: Do your homework. Learn the facts and the capacities you need to deal with the situation.
  4. Converse: Find and talk with the people who can help you understand the situation, imagine possible resolutions, decide what to do, garner needed resources, and act.
  5. Understand: Identify the real, underlying problem, not just the symptoms. Make sense of the situation. Things are the way they are for a reason. Know what that reason is. Sympathize.
  6. Question: Ask, don’t tell. Challenge. Think critically.
  7. Imagine: Brainstorm alternative possibilities. Give them time to emerge. Evaluate them objectively. Don’t be wedded to them — be flexible as new knowledge arises and as the situation continually changes.
  8. Reflect: Give yourself time to consider options and consequences.
  9. Decide: Tentatively, what to do, and when/how to do it.
  10. Intend: Imagine realization of success. Picture, hear, feel what could be. Be visionary. Every problem is an opportunity. Anything is possible.
  11. Resource: Get what you need to realize your intention.
  12. Let-Self-Change: Adapt. Increase your resilience to further changes.
  13. Offer: Consider. Give something away. Create options, new avenues to explore. Suggest possibilities. Lend a hand. Help.
  14. Collaborate: Realize together. 
  15. Follow Through: One step at a time, act on your intention.

What do you think?

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2 Responses to How to Deal With Complexity Day-to-Day

  1. lugon says:

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  2. km4 says:

    Dealing With Complexity Day-to-DayDave, I generally like your 15 point list and over the years with accumlated diverse experience (and hopefully some wisdom) I’ve found myself becoming more of a practioner. However, I’ve been an independent consultant for much of the last 15 yrs which has ‘conditioned me’.My key point….Unfortunately in most businesses today ( SMB’s and expecially Global 2000 companies ) it’s a ‘rare bird’ from VP Level on up who would ascribe to much or most of 15 points on your list.

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