The Challenge of Complexity

A VUCA World

Volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity: in a word, ‘VUCA.’ In the 1990s, the U.S. Army started using the term to describe a world that had become much more challenging and unpredictable. Warfare was no longer well-structured. Terrorism – decentralized, self-organized, fast, and agile – was creating unprecedented confusion and chaos.

Today, leaders everywhere need to cope with these same realities. Formal strategies and plans are more prone to failure. We no longer understand the systems we’re interacting with, unknown forces are in play, and these forces interact in unanticipated ways, with dire consequences. Problems are intertwined, and there is no immediately obvious solution.

General System Theory

Before the 20th century, we relied on simpler models of the world, focusing on separate parts rather than the whole. Knowledge was compartmentalized in disciplines, sub-disciplines, and sub-sub-disciplines. But by the 1920s, as we confronted the complex links between society, the economy, and the environment, it was becoming clear that this over-simplified thinking was no longer adequate.

Biologist Ludwig von Bertalanffy reacted to the growing compartmentalization of knowledge by proposing a new science that looked at relationships between the parts, focusing on organization, connections, interactions, and emergent behaviors within systems.

The Society for General System Theory was founded in 1954 “to further the development of theoretical systems which are applicable to more than one of the traditional departments of knowledge.” Von Bertalanffy published General System Theory: Foundations, Development, Applications in 1968. Understanding how systems worked, he said, would help us deal with the challenge of growing complexity. The new worldview gave rise to many new disciplines: cybernetics, information theory, general system theory, game theory, decision theory, systems analysis, systems engineering, and operations research.

Russell Ackoff’s Messes

A few years later, Russell Ackoff, professor in the Wharton school of business at the University of Pennsylvania and a pioneer in systems thinking, applied these ideas to organizations, and more broadly to society. In Redesigning the Future: A Systems Approach to Societal Problems (1974), he searched for a term to describe the tangle of complexity, and called it a ‘mess.’

“We have come to realize that no problem exists in complete isolation. Every problem interacts with other problems and is therefore part of a set of interrelated problems, a system of problems. For example, the race problem, the poverty problem, the urban problem, and the crime problem, to mention but a few, are clearly interrelated. Furthermore, solutions to most problems produce other problems… English does not contain a suitable word for ‘system of problems.’ Therefore, I have had to coin one. I choose to call such a system a mess.”

Wicked Problems

Others were grappling with these issues at the same time. Charles West Churchman, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, first used the term ‘wicked problem’ in 1967. Horst Rittel and Melvin Webber, professors of design at the University of California, Berkeley, used it in “Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning,” a paper published in 1973. It has since entered our common language.

Wicked problems in the environment, economics and politics, Rittel and Webber said, were very different from those encountered in science and engineering. “The problems that scientists and engineers have usually focused upon are mostly ‘tame’ or ‘benign’ ones.” Wicked problems had ten characteristics that made them infinitely more challenging:

  1. There is no clear formulation of a wicked problem.
  1. There is no obvious end; the search for solutions never stops.
  1. Solutions cannot be assessed objectively as right or wrong; they can only be judged subjectively as good or bad.
  1. There is no ultimate test if a solution to a wicked problem is working; actions to solve them produce unexpected consequences.
  1. Attempts to solve wicked problems cannot be tried and abandoned; consequences are created that cannot be undone.
  1. Solutions to wicked problems are not well-described or limited; there are many possible courses of action.
  1. Wicked problems have no precedent and past experience is unhelpful; every problem is essentially unique.
  1. There is no self-contained root cause; every wicked problem is intertwined with others, and can be a symptom of another problem.
  1. A wicked problem can be explained in numerous ways; there is no clear consensus among stakeholders of what it is and what the causes are.
  1. The planner has no right to be wrong; problem solvers are held liable for the consequences of their actions.

Super Wicked Problems

Thinking about complex problems has evolved further. In a 2009 paper, “Super Wicked Problems and Climate Change,” Richard Lazarus, a law professor at Georgetown University, talked about global challenges with several additional characteristics: time is running out; those who must solve the problem are causing it and have the least incentive to act; there is no authority with the scope required to match the problem; and the response discounts the future.

Adam Kahane, an expert in scenario planning and systemic change, described three other attributes of complexity in his book Solving Tough Problems: An Open Way of Talking, Listening, and Creating New Realities (2004) – dynamic, generative, and social. Problems have high dynamic complexity if cause and effect (action and the result) are far apart in space and time. They have high generative complexity if their future is unfamiliar and unpredictable. They have high social complexity if the people who are part of a problem have different assumptions, values, rationales and objectives. Highly complex problems, Kahane says, can only be solved using processes that are systemic, emergent, and participatory. Compartmentalized, rigid, and authoritarian approaches won’t work.

Implications for Organizations

Volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity are characteristic of our time, when it feels like the world is in turmoil. A new kind of organization and a new kind of leadership are needed. Driven by these realities, a revolution is now underway.

In his recent book, Team of Teams: New Rules of Engagement for a Complex World (2015), General Stanley McChrystal talks about the lessons learned by the United States Army in the Iraq war, and how they changed the way the military works.

“In the course of this fight, we had to unlearn a great deal of what we thought we knew about how war – and the world – worked. We had to tear down familiar organizational structures and rebuild them along completely different lines, swapping our sturdy architecture for organic fluidity, because it was the only way to confront a rising tide of complex threats. Specifically, we restructured our force from the ground up on principles of extremely transparent information sharing (what we call ‘shared consciousness’) and decentralized decision-making authority (‘empowered execution’).”

A Team of Teams was needed, McChrystal says. “We abandoned many of the precepts that had helped establish our efficacy in the twentieth century, because the twenty-first century is a different game with different rules.” The challenge of complexity, he says, is now shared by organizations everywhere: organizations that were designed to deal with a simpler world that no longer exists.