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.

The Machine and the Metaphor

In the industrial economy, when the production of ‘things’ in factories made up the bulk of our value creation work, the machine metaphor became the dominant frame for thinking about how we did work. People in the system were reduced to cogs in an almost literal sense, and when they broke (or rather, were broken,) they were changed out. And the damage was visible and quantifiable too: we sent people home with broken hands, backs and lungs.

The vast bulk of value creation is no longer found on the factory floor, but the machine metaphor is still the dominant frame for much of our thinking about how work is done. While people are not treated as literal cogs in the machine, the system of work (and a person’s contribution to it) is still viewed through the machine lens. As a result, we still break our people. But we no longer send them home with broken hands, backs and lungs, instead we send them home frustrated, disengaged, burnt out, stressed, and dispirited.

The machine and the metaphor have their place, but when they dominate our view of strategy, innovation and learning, when our thinking settles on repetition and refinement, when we only see our people as cogs in those machines (literal or metaphorical), richer capabilities in those same people are left aside.

For the challenges we face in our work today we need new capabilities and richer ways of working that allow for the machine and the metaphor, but in the right times and places.

A Mess or a Mission

Before every project or meeting we should ask ourselves: 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.

  • Which conversation are we having? Are we on the same page? Are we clear about what mission we’re working on?
  • How many conversations are there actually? Are there multiple missions here?

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

It’s okay to have multiple missions, we just need to make sure we know which one we’re having a conversation about right now.

Nothing wrong with our people

How many of our team members, do you suppose, drove to work this morning, thinking, “I will come to work today and be lousy at my job”?


When things go wrong in work teams it’s tempting to blame the individuals.

We look to psychology. We try to address individual misbehaviour; we work on personalities and attitudes.

But there is nothing wrong with our people.

We have good people, with good intent and adequate resources.

Rather than asking “why is this person a bastard?” we should ask “what have we done to make them that way?”

The issue isn’t with how people think or behave (psychology), the issue lies in how people interact (sociology).

Many problems appear to show up in the form of individual misbehaviour, but decades of work on the personalities and attitudes of our people (greater personal insight, personality profiling, task matching) hasn’t delivered much in the way of organisational improvement or leadership effectiveness.

The problem is that our work is so badly designed as to defeat the best efforts even of psychologically insightful individuals.


(Hat tip to Elliot Jacques: In Praise of Hierarchy)


Better at Questions

Creative work is all about questions.

If you don’t have a question then you’re not doing work, and if you have no more questions then you’ve finished your work (you are no longer creating, you are performing).

Once we’ve established that we are indeed asking and answering questions, we can move forward and there are a few places where we can and do make errors.

Try one of these:


Asking too many questions

How many questions are actually being asked? Is there one, or many? Can and should they be pulled apart and addressed separately?

Asking the wrong question

Is the question that has been asked the right one? The best one?

Not addressing the question

Has the question miscarried? Is this answer for a different question?

Lack of clarity about the current question

In resolving a bigger question, there are a number of smaller questions that need to be answered and getting lost in these is common. What question is being answered?

Issues with the boundaries of questions.

What is in and what is out? Consideration needs to be given to appetite, resources, constraints, and other systems.

Asking a question that is too small

Should a bigger question be asked? Does the question, as asked, capture the scope widely enough to allow work to be done on the right thing.


We don’t just need to be better at answers (coming up with answers, scrutinising answers, measuring answers, etc); we also need to be much better at questions.