We often find that people use the word “complexity” in a range of settings. Most often it is used by your average person on the street to describe a situation or technology that escapes their understanding. And so, in this colloquial use you will hear people lament and say things like, “What can we do? It’s so complex.” A great analogy thatPaul Cilliers, the elder statesman of complexity in South Africa, uses is of his mother’s struggle with bank ATMs. To her using an ATM is an amazing complex – it behaves differently every time, sometimes swallowing her card without reason, and frustrating her. To Paul, it’s a really simple machine.

Sonja and I have spent the last two days in Stellenbosch with South Africa’s leading academics, Paul being one of them, and scientists who address the issue of complexity. It has been a time of questioning the issue of complexity in the South African academic and business landscapes. As we have wrestled with these questions we have realised how precarious the relevance of complexity theory and application is within our country.

In particular, we have wrestled with the different levels of complexity perceived by decision makers, managers and leaders …

The ATM example above, while shallow to some degree, uncovers a dynamic of dealing with complexity that is endemic across all levels of business. The dynamic is this: the more we come to know and understand an issue/situation/technology, the less complex it becomes. The more we understand the intricacies of a complex situation, the more we are able to act in appropriate response.

This makes me wonder if all complexity is not really just a lack of understanding and knowledge about that which is complex in our eyes? Maybe someone who is brighter than me, and reading this post, may want to comment on that statement?

Anyway, back to my argument …

In the business realm, we have often found how managers and leaders approach complexity with a reductionist addiction. That is, when faced with a complex situation, they believe it will become less complex and more manageable if they simply break up a problem into smaller parts, until each of those smaller parts becomes a manageable aspect of the broader problem.

I remember talking to an engineer in a mining environment who was in charge of the water management strategy and we were talking about the complexity of his task. He really wrestled with what we were saying about how you need to probe a complex situation to learn more about it. He stopped me from speaking and said, “No! All we need to do is break up this problem into smaller bits and solve each little problem. That is how you solve complexity.” Needless to say, we didn’t work with him for much longer.

The problem with his approach was this: the more you reduce the problem to “simpler” components, the more you lose touch with the complexity fo the situation. Complexity, by definition, involves the interactions between the components of the problem – if you remove those interactions, you loose the complexity, not solve it. The complexity will remain, and this is why so many managers do not understand why throwing money and solutions that worked in the past do not solve their complex problems.

This reductionist approach, while particularly unhelpful in this specific example, is one that we cannot escape I believe. It seems to be in built in our cognitive make up as humans to want to reduce complex situations as much as possible. I wonder if creating understanding about complex problems is not always reductionist?