Attending to Complicatedness

Complexity is hard. It’s hard to work with, it’s hard to be in, it’s just plain hard! But we make it harder on ourselves by adding complicatedness to the complexity.

At work, when we’re stuck on a problem or making a mess of things, try addressing complicatedness before addressing complexity. Get in the habit of asking: Do we have a mess or a mission?

A mess is when we aren’t sure what conversation we are having or what question we are answering.

A mission is when we are already clear about what it is that we are here to do.

  • Which conversation are we having?
  • How many conversations are there actually?
  • Are we having the right conversation?
  • Are we trying to answer more than one question?
  • Do we need to answer more than one question?
  • Are we answering the right question?
  • Is everyone on the same page about that?
  • Do we need to answer a different question?
  • Do we need to answer a bigger question?

We don’t need to have the wording perfect, we just need to agree roughly that we’re all in the same ballpark in order to proceed. If it turns out we were mistaken there’s plenty of room to move later on. We just need to be pretty happy with the idea that we’re sufficiently on the same page: that we are talking about and working on the same thing (even if we’re unclear about how that will unfold).

Once we can pull apart these and set aside the complicatedness, then we can attend to what we hold. And what we hold may be simple, complicated, wicked or complex (or some of each). But if we try and tackle them all at once then we are adding unnecessary stress and frustration.

Deal with complicatedness before dealing with complexity.

How to See

When we made things in the factories of the industrial revolution, we could see the work as it progressed across the shop floor.

But we now live in a knowledge economy, where we create new meaning, new knowledge and new value with our heads rather than our hands, and don’t have the same ability to “see” our work.

But what is knowledge work?

Knowledge work is not done inside our heads, in isolation. It is done via interactions: through verbal, non-verbal, symbolic and written material. And all of these interactions are grounded in our language: in conversation.

Conversations are the basis for all business: nothing gets made without being made in conversation first. In fact, organisations are made entirely of conversations.

It follows then that being good at conversation is the most valuable thing a business can invest in and being bad at conversation is the most expensive thing a business can do.

But if knowledge work is conversation, then why do we fail or succeed? And how do we get to be good at conversation? And how do we avoid bad ones? How can we “see” like we did in the factories of the industrial era?

That’s what we’re specialists in. Helping people to see and navigate large and complex conversations in the knowledge economy.

Problems with work

Many of us maintain an illusion that we solve problems at work.

The reality is that we spend a large proportion of our time, energy and resources solving problems with work.

We fall short. Our ways of working are messy, ineffective, underwhelming, wasteful or completely off-target.

Our people (and institutions) have been educated and habituated to particular ways of working. These default ways of working are not good for the types of problems we are facing in an increasingly fast paced and complex world.

When we try and bring old ways of working to this new type of work, we do injustices: to the work and to our people.

The world has shifted and we need new ways of working. We need to know when to reach for different tools, and what they are, for when the work is different. We need to dig our way out of the ineffective and (frankly) damaging legacies of the limited set of conversations that we inherited out of the industrial material contexts of work in the 19th and 20th Century that impede upon our ability to do that work.

We need to keep the challenge where it belongs: working on solving problems, not solving problems with work.