Dissecting the Complex

Wow America! That was something else. President Trump!?! Not for the first time we are seeing Life imitating the Simpsons. I’ve spent a couple of days listening to friends and colleagues in the US and home. As I’ve read through the out pouring of grief and anger (and joy for some) it’s plain to see people are searching for answers. What caused this? Why did this happen? 

The simple answer is that it’s complex. Not that it’s complicated, as in there’s many steps in the process but there’s a linear thread which provides meaning. No its complex, as in there are many causes and they each interact with each other in a way that there is no definitive path or causality. In a complex problem it’s impossible to quantify causality or the level of effect something might have had on the outcome in any real and determinate way. 

So when it comes to Trump – no one thing caused his ascent. 

It’s racism AND sexism AND misogyny AND white supremacy AND economic deprivation AND income inequality AND the labour market AND healthcare AND cities vs regions AND poverty AND education AND student debt AND all other debt AND the global financial crisis AND what Obama and Hillary represent AND resurgent conservatism AND evangelical religion AND Bernie AND Twitter AND Facebook AND anti Semitism AND neoliberalism AND socialism AND Russia AND Snowden AND Wikileaks AND email AND Thiel AND Silicon Valley AND the Rust Belt AND the Electoral College. It’s all of these things (and MANY, MANY more) interacting with each other. 

Anyone that tries to boil the cause of the Trump presidency down to one these thing is over simplifying the actual problem, and mostly for good reasons. They’re trying to simplify the problem because as humans were good at simple. We can understand it and effect it. We suck at complexity because causality is fluid in a complex problem and there is no singular cause to effect relationship. Instead the whole space is dynamic, there is power and influence to deal with. Not to mention that adaption takes place as time goes on. A complex problem is a system and things become codified, modified, normalised and power dynamics shift. Incident along the way can have a ripple effect and cascade over time. 

 The way I’ve started to make sense of complexity is to think of them as dynamic problems. They’re similar to fluid dynamics where the liquid had properties and momentum but control is difficult. You can mitigate and manipulate the but you can’t change the liquid itself. So in looking to tackle complex problems it’s not about trying to simplify them to a simple cause and effect statement, but to concentrate on ways to manipulate the dynamics. This can be done in fairly simple ways – shifting power, changing relationship, influencing attractors – but it doesn’t seek to change the problem space. At the same time “solutions” are influential rather than definitive (this is a big change in mindset for most people). They also need to be adapted and changed over time as the system corrects and changes. The most powerful method of working is through iteration. Create a feedback loop that allows faster insights and structure for change. 

Often the best solution to complex problem are simple. They don’t seek to change the problem itself and simplify it, but are simple ways to affect the dynamics. Like when people come together. 


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