Complexity will continue to drive change

Complexity can be both a blessing and a curse. Together with its VUCA siblings, it will continue to drive change.

It’s more than complicated. It’s complex. We yearn for simplicity, and populists of all colours cater to our yearnings with simple answers and narratives. Keep it simple. Simplify your life. Digital technology has both made our lives easier and added new layers of complexity. Simplicity and complexity can be seen as a kind of yin-yang that are both present, feeding each other.

In the political sphere, the compromise is the way to reduce complexity and unite the antagonisms of diverse Parallelwelten. A compromise isn’t an easy answer, and often hard to fit into a simple narrative. Look no further than to Brexit and its bunch of dilemmas.

While complexity fosters our cravings for simplicity, simple human interfaces hide multiple layers of complexity. The price we pay for simplicity is complexity. The simplicity paradox, also known as Bonini’s paradox, seems to be inevitable. It says that any model or map of reality becomes less useful, the more details are added. A theoretical 1:1 map is useless, a 1:1 model is either an abstract, a prototype or a duplicate.

Complexity is powerful

Could it be that the digital realities we’ve created over the past decades are getting bigger than our good, old analogue reality? Digital realities are no longer models of the analogue, but the real thing themselves. They are getting increasingly more complex. The notion of a digital twin encompasses every analogue detail replicated in digital form.

At some point, digital twins are growing more complex than their analogue siblings. If we define a model as less complex than reality, this means digital is now real, and the analogue world reduced to a mere model. Complexity is powerful. Digital and analogue interact with each other. George Dyson describes large hybrid analogue/digital systems as today’s most powerful forces.

They come with both new degrees and new kinds of complexity, and on a truly global scale. These are non-linear systems, and non-linearity makes them both powerful and hard to predict. This is the reason why complexity tends to come in a bundle with volatility, uncertainty and ambiguity. This bundle is called VUCA. In our VUCA world, the old-world order based on Fordism and Taylorism is quickly dying.

The first glimpses into a post-agile world

Organisations built for the old world work best with low levels of volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity. When things are linear and predictable, they can manage, control and plan as they always used to do. To be fair, these organisations can in fact deal with certain levels of complexity. But the combination of complexity with the other three VUCA characteristics makes things difficult.

To an extent, the agile movement came into being to deal with the VUCA world – a world that digital technologies helped to create in the first place. Since software is now everywhere, agile development has spread to industry after industry, sometimes even losing its original meaning and spirit. (But that’s a topic for another posting.)

Agile development and associated methods like Scrum are now widely adopted to work under VUCA conditions. These days we start to get the first glimpses into a post-agile world – that is of course still agile, like post-digital is still digital. Agile is a necessary, but not a sufficient condition for the next step.

The next step is to reassess what it means to be human, in contrast to be a machine. At NEXT19, David Mattin came up with three points: Humans are (1) socially constructed, (2) environmentally embedded and (3) embodied. Nothing of this is changed by the rise of the machines. No machine can replace a human being’s social identity or their bodies, and it shouldn’t.

A reassessment of what it means to be human leads to the rise of purpose, value(s) and empowerment in the business world. What’s still missing though is the step to shared power, decentralised networks, self-management, emergence and wholeness. Think of Frederic Laloux and his seminal work Reinventing Organizations.

Complexity and its VUCA siblings will continue to drive this change.

Photo by Pierre Châtel-Innocenti on Unsplash