Coping With Complexity


saraswati, hindu goddess of knowledge, creativity and openness (image online, uncredited)

Some recent comments from readers of my First Principles post led me to revisit one of the first posts I wrote on this blog, nearly seven years ago. It was about a seven-step process for coping with a new situation that Cyndy Roy and I co-developed. Here’s an excerpt:

Sense, Self-control, Understand, Question, Imagine, Offer, Collaborate

Sense: Observe, listen, pay attention, open up your senses, perceive everything that has a bearing on the issue at hand. Connect.
Self-control: Don’t prejudge or jump to conclusions. Don’t lose your cool. Focus. Breathe.
Understand: Make sure you have the facts and appreciate the context. Things are the way they are for a reason. Know what that reason is. Sympathize.
Question: Ask, don’t tell. Challenge. Think critically.
Imagine: Picture, hear, feel what could be. Be visionary. Every problem is an opportunity. Anything is possible.
Offer: Consider. Give something away. Create options, new avenues to explore. Suggest possibilities. Lend a hand. Help.
Collaborate: Create something together. Evolve  collective approaches that are better than any set of individual approaches. Learn to yield, to build on, to bridge, to adapt your thinking.

We developed this before I started reading and writing about complexity theory, but it occurs to me that this is really a practice (can’t really call it a methodology) for coping with complexity — with situations that have no simple (put the lights on a timer) or merely complicated (include a torque converter in your electric bicycle conversion kit, and make sure you true the wheels before riding). In complex situations, there is no ‘right answer’ — there are too many variables, no clear cause-effect relationships (if you do X, you may or may not get result Y), and no way of predicting what will happen. Most of the ‘problems’ we face are not (complicated) problems (with ‘solutions’) but rather (complex) predicaments that we have to adapt ourselves to.

It seems to me that wild creatures (and perhaps Buddhists) appreciate this, and they appear to use these seven steps to cope with situations over which they (and we) have no real control. I think we would be wise to do likewise. Here’s how these seven steps differ from the normal ‘problem-solution’ process we use in merely complicated situations. As you review them, think about a specific complex situation: Example: Resolving a non-trivial conflict between two people you respect and who both have valid points that cannot be reconciled:

  1. Sense: Pay attention to everything that is happening. Don’t try to identify the ‘problem’, or the ’cause’ or the obvious ‘solution’ because in complex situations there are none of these. If we think we see a cause or solution, we’re probably over-simplifying and we will be prone to making erroneous decisions.
  2. Self-control: Become aware of your own subjectivity, biases, feelings, and predispositions. Know yourself, and appreciate that you are not separate from this situation or from others trying to cope with it. You are a part of the system and hence of the predicament. You cannot control it (though you probably wish you could and my want to try to); you can only control yourself, and your reaction to it. Appreciate that the situation is a predicament, that you and others need to accommodate and adapt to, not a ‘problem’ that needs to be ‘fixed’. Lower your own and others’ expectations that there are magical or simple ‘answers’ to this situation.
  3. Understand: Appreciate that things are the way they are for a reason, and that there’s a reason that this predicament has no simple (or complicated) ‘solution’. Appreciate the situation, and the different knowledge, ideas and perspectives that people have in regard to it. Appreciate not just the ‘intellectual’ content of the situation but also the emotions at play. Sympathize with what and how people feel and understand why they feel that way. Let your senses and intuition inform your understanding.
  4. Question: Use questions, of yourself and of others, to explore and deepen your appreciation, and that of others, of the situation. Don’t proffer answers or quick fixes, because if there were a quick fix it would already have occurred to someone and have been done. Ask questions that are not judgemental but which are probing, challenging, and which push past unacknowledged biases or assumptions.
  5. Imagine: Surface approaches and possibilities that others have not thought of, and encourage and facilitate others to do so, collaboratively. Hold these approaches and possibilities open. Find different ways to look at the situation. Think about how nature copes with analogous situations and challenges. Hold the creative tension between what is imaginable and what is practicable, by encouraging both creative and critical thinking.
  6. Offer: Be generous. Be the first to offer something of value — your time, resources, willingness to talk with others or do research. Give and incite others to give likewise, following your example, your intention. Take responsibility.
  7. Collaborate: While there are certain actions that each person will, as a result of the understanding and appreciation they have achieved through this process, do personally, take personal responsibility for, some of the most powerful actions that can come from this practice are collective, collaborative. In collaboration, you do what you do best, and show others what you do, and by watching others you learn from them too. And the collective product is a give and take, a weaving, an adaptation to each other as well as the predicament you are working to address, to adapt yourselves to. Collaboration can produce, unexpectedly and unpredictably, results that outshine what any individual, no matter how brilliant or competent, could ever do alone.

This seven-step practice was itself a collaboration with Cyndy, and despite all I have learned since we developed it, I can’t see how to improve on it, which shows, I think, the value of collaboration.

To remember the seven steps, I created a simple set of hand movements: open and receiving (sense), fingers together contemplatively (self-control), forefingers pointed up in aha! style (understand), left hand open in a receiving gesture (question), fingers  of right hand to temple (imagine), right hand open in giving gesture (offer), hands clasped supportively together (collaborate). Much better than an acronym.

It is a practice, and as such it takes practice, but it seems to work.

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5 Responses to Coping With Complexity

  1. Alan Post says:

    I love the pidgin sign you’ve developed for remembering this list. I use ASL signs for remembering the steps of NVC (observations, feelings, need, requests) and for ORID (A debriefing technique consisting of observation, reflection, introspective, and decisions.) As a tool, I find signing to be an easier way for me to remember techniques like this. I’ve stayed mostly within ASL, however; your system has given me a new perspective.

    Some short while ago, Alison Shaffer published a list of daily spiritual practices that she called “Practicing the Daily Simple.”[1] I find her list interesting to compare to yours, as they both practice the same skills. Up until your list calls for collaboration and engagement with other people. Practicing Alison’s daily simple could be seen as practice for the elements of your list that can be practiced alone.


  2. Scott Lewis says:

    Awesome post! Thanks for writing.

    Going through complicated situations has been at the top of my mind and heart lately. It’s good to have outside ideas to run my process through.

    Thanks again!

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  4. It’s a lovely approach to dealing with predicaments. I’m not sure the analogy to wild animals works, though. Many wild animals much of the time use just two steps:
    1. Sense
    2. Run like crazy

    It’s amazing how well such a simple approach works, even though the range of things the animal may be sensing could be very broad. If nothing was going to eat you and you run like crazy, you use a bit of energy–little loss. If something was going to eat you and you fail to run like crazy, you get eaten–huge loss. We can use more sophisticated approaches precisely because we are not wild animals, and so our control over our environment is such that it’s incredibly unlikely as a rule that anything is going to eat us. As soon as the situation becomes more stark, though, we have a tendency to fall back on simple instinctive rules of thumb with proven track records. One unfortunate side effect is that it’s not that hard to give people the impression that the situation is more stark when in fact it is not, leading them to apply fight-or-flight reactions to complex international politics, say.

  5. Pax Robotica says:

    Wonderful to have a roadmap to dealing with complexity. Thank you! I am a simple cardboard robot who brings peace to the world! Easy to follow instructions! Are you interested in discussing the political virtue of civility? Twitter @Pax_101

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