Understanding Complexity

Since last fall, I have been busily engaged with a group of volunteers across the country organizing the next Canadian conference on Dialogue and Deliberation – Facing Complex Issues Together, coming up in Vancouver BC, November 12-14, 2007 (do register if you haven’t yet done so!). Here are some key research pieces I compiled to help us understand complexity.

Adam Kahane, author of Solving Tough Problems: An Open Way of Talking, Listening, and Creating New Realities identifies three types of complexity: dynamic, social and generative. Dynamic complexity relates to the lags that occur in time and space between the actions taken by organizations (causes) and their consequent social and/or environmental impacts (effects). Social complexity arises from the diversity, multiplicity, and interdependence of stakeholders from different social, economic, political, geographic or other systems. Generative complexity arises from encountering issues, realities, problems and opportunities that have never before been faced by human beings, and where past solutions and methods no longer work or cannot be applied. Adam Kahane will be a guest panelist at C2D2.

Dr. Brenda Zimmerman (co-author of Getting to Maybe: How the World Is Changed) says that understanding whether an issue is simple, complicated or complex is critically important to how we go about addressing it. Solutions to complex issues require involvement of multiple views to gain as much of the whole picture as possible; dialogue methodologies are very helpful here. At best, it is important to recognize that we will likely only ever arrive at ‘good enough for now’ solutions to complex issues. At any time, dynamic, social or generative sources of complexity may cause today’s solutions to become ineffective or irrelevant. A good example of this is the case of BC’s interior pine forests. Hard-come-by plans to manage the forests sustainably have been dramatically altered by the arrival of the pine beetle due to climate change. The beetles are decimating the pine forests and transforming the landscape, ecology and local economies at a rate beyond anything previously envisaged. Such is the nature of complex issues.

  • Simple – the issue is known; there is certainty of the same outcome every time; e.g., a recipe, a puzzle; an oil change.
  • Complicated – the issue is knowable, even if very difficult technically; there is a high degree of certainty of the outcome; e.g., putting a spaceship on the moon; organizing a Live Aid concert.
  • Complex – issue is unknowable; there is uncertainty as to the outcome; e.g., raising a child, achieving sustainability, reducing world hunger, addressing homelessness, reducing drug use. etc.

(Definitions extracted from Dr. Zimmerman’s PowerPoint presentation, “Complexity, Mental Models and Ecocyle/Panarchy” delivered in Ottawa, 2007.)

Author: myriamlaberge

M.A. (Economics), Certified Professional Facilitator Founder & Managing Director