Complexity is a Measurement Problem

Tuesday, January 21, 2014
by Kent Aitken RSS / cpsrenewalFacebook / cpsrenewalLinkedIn / Kent Aitkentwitter / kentdaitkengovloop / KentAitken

In today's ecosystem of articles and books about innovation, management, governance, policy, and technology, there is a sentence that is becoming a standard:

"Leaders must manage an increasingly complex environment."

And the author can point to anything - Moore's Law, economic interconnectedness, citizen participation in policy-making, environmental externalities - and make their point. And they're right. The consulting company KPMG surveyed business leaders, who put complexity at the top of their agenda. But it's only half the story, and it's dangerous to treat the issue of complexity as being only about it increasing.

Complexity is a Measurement Problem

Saying "The world is increasingly complex" is almost like saying "Planets just keep popping into existence" and ignoring advancements in telescopes. The world was never exactly simple, and much of the complexity we see now was always there; it was our ignorance that led us to oversimplify things (see: What We Don't Know). But over time, we've developed far better lenses with which to see the world. From letters, to printing presses, to photojournalism, to Twitter. It's simply possible to be far more aware of what is happening outside your immediate circles, and how actions reverberate.

When framed as a complexity problem, the rational response is managing complexity and attempting to anticipate its trajectory. But when also framed as a measurement problem, the response includes assessing whether or not you actually understand all of the current complexity in the first place, whether you're missing pieces still, and whether you need to re-examine the tools you use to understand your environment.

What if the world is still far more complex than we realize? Should our effort go into managing the complexity that we know about, or building better telescopes?