Posts Tagged ‘complexity’

Project Reality Check #11: Frame of Mind

by Gary Monti on March 1, 2011

“Everything is simple,” is one of my mantras. To hold true it depends upon two things. The first is greed, fear, rage, and ignorance are absent. The second is the right perspective, one’s frame of mind or point of view, is appropriate for the situation. Let’s take a look at the latter and how to establish a realistic point of view.

One Question

In line with “everything is simple,” one question is sufficient to determine what frame-of-mind or perspective is appropriate for a project. The question is,

“What happens when you follow the rules?”

There is a whole plethora of answers. They tend to fall into the following patterns:

  1. Things run like clockwork! When everyone in my group sticks to the rules and does what they are supposed to do then the work gets done and we can feel good at the end of the day.
  2. Reasonably well as long as our boss makes the right connections with the other bosses. We’ve been at this for a while and over time have accumulated a range of customers and products with different demands and requirements. We work it out, though, and keep the customer happy.
  3. It depends since some groups cooperate with us and others go their own way. We spend a lot of time “greasing the wheels” around here working to keep people connected to the project and stay on-task.
  4. Which rules are you talking about? The rules change from day-to-day and situation-to-situation. Oh, wait! They also change with who is in charge at any given time!  It puts a lot of stress on us in the trenches but we take pride in making things work out. Don’t get me wrong; it’s anything but perfect. We’ve had our share of snafus and paid dearly for them. But we learn and work to do better the next time.
  5. I honestly don’t know. This place is different now. I stick to the policies and procedures in our department and get along with those around me but we can’t predict how things will turn out. Some days are good, others aren’t. It’s wearing. You just can’t depend on things going like they used to.
  6. What rules? This place is a free-for-all. I am surprised we are still in business.


The frames-of-mind present are:

Simple for “1.” The rules are clear and concise and results are predictable. The methods work so a top-down approach to projects fits. The project needs primarily to be managed.

Complicated for “2.” There are multiple sets of rules present based on the history of the organization and adjustments are needed from product-to-product and client–to-client. Overall, though, no new demands are being made. A top-down approach still works.

Complex for “3.” And “4.” Work increasingly is getting done from the bottom-up. Solutions emerge from team members working across boundaries to establish day-to-day tactical connections that they hope will yield the desired strategic results. Facilitation would work here. Turn the workers loose to create the solution but hold them to the acceptance criteria. Failures are simply experiments that yielded unexpected results.

Chaotic applies to “5.” This is a dangerous situation since ups-and-downs occur for the organization but are unpredictable. People are putting in way too much effort in an attempt to get daily activities complete. Empowerment of employees to (re)build the organization works here. The leader’s focus is pointing to the goals that must be attained to survive and succeed. Honest, open feedback is critical and the encouragement of trust and building bonds among stakeholders and team members.

Random is at play with “6.” All signs of business intelligence have disappeared. It is just a matter of time before going out of business.  Do ANYTHING to get out of this state or just cancel the project and move on.

The Reality and the Challenge

The reality and challenge are the fact that all 6 frames-of-mind or some subset can be present on a given project. The goal, then, is to make sure the project terrain is gauged accordingly and the style(s) adapted are appropriate. In other words, you might be using top-down with a part of the project that is truly simple. A hands-off approach could be used with a part that has yet to have a solution emerge. Finally, scope may need to be cut with a third part of the project that is currently unrecoverable.

Remember, everything is simple (if you have the right frame of mind)

What makes complexity complex? Why the fuss? Here’s a brief review of the key components and how they relate. It should remind you of your own experiences – your own sense of complexity and what you go through in bringing people together (or separating them, as the case may be) in solving problems and creating solutions.

As has been stated in previous blogs, the hallmark of complex systems is emergent behavior; behavior that flows bottom-up and is different in kind, creating something novel. A flame is a good example. The chemistry of burning carbon and hydrogen (wood) gives no indication of how a flame would appear. Here is another example. Knowing children want to play is one thing, predicting what games they will invent is in a “whole ‘nother ballgame” (pun intended).

The Building Blocks of Complexity

Four components and how they vary are at the source of complexity:

  • The ability to learn and adapt;
  • Connectedness;
  • Interdependency;
  • Diversity


Critical to emergence is the ability to learn and adapt. Novelty is what comes from complexity. This means having a team that learns, uses what works, and creates what is needed.


This is about being engaged, connected to the situation and people, and being fully present.  If you’ll allow a little hyperbole, the engineer and problem are one and this mythical engineer is in touch with everyone else in the situation.


In addition to connection there needs to be flexing. There needs to be the ability to influence one another (power) for emergence to occur. In complexity, Thomas Merton’s statement, “No man is an island,” is quite appropriate. One person on high does not dictate emergent structures – they evolve from the group in a situation where everyone and no one can take credit. It is the team that gets the credit.


For thorny, complex challenges to be taken on and fruitful results generated multiple frames of mind are needed. Healthy challenges from everyone involved – the conflict of diversity is needed.

The Interesting In-Between

How do these attributes, these variables relate in a complex system. “The Interesting In-Between” is a phrase John H. Miller, PhD, and Scott Page, PhD, use in their book, Complex Adaptive Systems in discussing how “settings” of the four variables are critical if emergence is to occur. The key trait is no one variable must either disappear or dominate. They each must be at the “in-between” setting.

If learning is at zero then obviously no adaptation will occur. Whatever set of rules are being used right now is how it will be. If it is at 100% everyone will know everything about everyone else and equilibrium will set in. Novelty will disappear.

Similarly, if connectedness is at zero novelty will be absent since there will be no influence on the system. On the flip side, if everyone is connected to everyone else then, once again, equilibrium sets in and novelty disappears.

Interdependency at zero would give us a bunch of hardheads with no interest in listening to others. If you have an adolescent child worried about what others think you are familiar with the paralysis that occurs with complete interdependence.

Diversity also influences novelty and emergence. If there is no diversity then groupthink occurs. If everyone is completely diverse then no common ground exists upon which a successful solution can emerge.

In addition to showing attributes that go into complexity the need for complexity shows when looking at these variables. Imagine a situation where same-old, same-old just doesn’t make it. Things can get very tiring and frustrating. It is like the vanity plates I see on a car routinely driving around the neighborhood, “SS DD.” If you don’t know what that means and want to find out, send me an e-mail.

Maintain a Balance Point

What all of this boils down to is the responsibility of the leader to maintain a balance among all four variables at a mid-point which has a positive tension.  To borrow a term from astronomers looking for earth-like planets, Goldilocks positions must be held for each variable, not too dampened and not too wild.

Chaos and Complexity #6: A Checklist that works!

by Gary Monti on October 19, 2010

Let’s put the theory covered so far in this series to work. Good leaders ask the right questions and listen to others for the answers. When dropped into a new situation one of the first, best questions to ask is, “Is the situation complex and, if so, what degree of complexity is present?” This sounds good but it can run into problems very quickly. One of the most common ones is the fact people are feeling the urge to focus and get to work. This can be a waste of time if the right frame-of-mind is lacking for determining what tasks need to be accomplished and how resources should be allocated. This was brought home in a previous blog dealing with the need to decide when to push on versus regroup.

Below is a checklist that helps facilitate a qualitative assessment of the level of complexity. It is in everyday language to facilitate use by a broad range of stakeholders and team members. In other words, it stays away from jargon, which can be the kiss of death when requesting information from people.

The Checklist

  1. Not sure how the project will get done;
  2. Many stakeholders, teams and sub-teams;
  3. Many vendors;
  4. New vendors;
  5. New client;
  6. Team members are geographically dispersed;
  7. End-users are geographically dispersed;
  8. Many organizations;
  9. Many cultures (professional, organizational, sociological);
  10. Many languages (professional, organizational, sociological);
  11. High risk;
  12. Lack of quality best characterized by lack of acceptance criteria;
  13. Lack of clear requirements;
  14. Many tasks;
  15. Arbitrary budget;
  16. Arbitrary end date;
  17. Inadequate resources;
  18. Leading-edge technology;
  19. New, unproven application of existing technology;
  20. High degree of interconnectedness (professional, technological, political, sociological).

But, If That Were True Then…

One of the most common responses when giving someone this list is, “If this list is accurate it would mean all my projects are complex!” It’s usually said with some astonishment and a degree of wonder as to whether or not it is overblown.

This brings us back to the blog on managing expectations. It is extremely important to establish the right expectations as to how much regrouping versus pushing forward is required in order to get to a realistic baseline that is executable.

Everything Is Simple

The real power of this checklist is based on the following:

  • It is principle-based with each question reflecting key categories that, if addressed correctly, will reduce complexity and lead to a stable deliverable;
  • It is simple. The list is designed to fit on one side of an 8.5 x 11.0” sheet of paper. It fits in your pocket. It is also simple in the sense the 20 items listed are interconnected. An amplification of effort can be achieved by addressing one area and seeing its positive impact on the others, e.g., requirements;
  • It helps re-orient when the confusion caused by greed, fear, ignorance, or indifference is present and obfuscates the conversation. Having this list gets the conversation back on track;
  • It is obvious. This might be the most important point. There is no special education or jargon required. Which reminds me of a quote from Einstein. He was asked, “When do you know you understand relativity?” His answer, “When you can explain it to the waitress at the diner.” This list taps into the reality that we all experience.

The thing to keep in mind is everything is simple when viewed from the correct perspective. If there is failure to address the checklist then the project will be complex. Period. If the items are addressed then things will get as simple as they can be under the circumstances and within the limits of the situation.

Chaos and Complexity #5: Chaos vs. Complexity

by Gary Monti on October 12, 2010

What is the difference between chaos and complexity? Many of the previous blogs have referred to both terms. While related, they are distinct. Here they will be differentiated.

Chaos vs Random

First, let’s look at what chaos is and isn’t. In everyday language chaos and randomness are considered synonyms. In chaos theory they are very different.

Random refers to a lack of structure at any level. No intelligence or pattern can be discerned.

Chaos does have observable patterns present. Chaos refers to the unpredictable behavior a deterministic (rules-driven) system displays. Chaotic systems are non-linear. This means small changes might produce a large change at certain times (tipping points). At other times a chaotic system can display remarkable robustness and remain intact when being hit with many, substantial impacts. There are other characteristics associated with chaotic systems, which we will explore in later blogs. For now, one more characteristic will be addressed which leads into the development of complex systems – emergence.

Emergence and Adaptation

Emergence is the appearance of patterns or intelligence arising from the interactions of components at a granular level. The most important distinction with emergence is the bottoms-up rather than top-down development of patterns. The resulting patterns can’t be predicted but they can be capitalized upon, amplified, and used to push adaption.

Adaptation is a transformative modification of the initial system, i.e., the system one ends up with can be different from the one started with. A good example of this is the map of Europe before and after World War II. The war began with England and France’s response to Germany’s invasion of Poland. The initial goal was the preservation of the sovereignty of Poland. In the end the German’s were defeated but Poland was lost behind the Iron Curtain. Notice how the adaption can have beneficial effects but may not necessarily result in the desired goals being met. This is a good example of the riskiness associated with working in the realm of chaotic systems. It still is better than trying to work in a deterministic fashion on a dancing terrain. Do you remember CompuServe? It had a chance to buy AOL, felt satisfied with being the big dog in business computing, stuck to a linear model, failed to adapt, got bought by MCI and now is a part of Verizon’s network.


Complex systems are a special type of chaotic system. They display a very interesting type of emergent behavior called, logically enough, complex adaptive behavior. But we are getting ahead of ourselves. There’s a need to back up a bit and describe a fundamental behavior that occurs at the granular level and leads to complex adaptive behavior. It is self -organization.

Self Organization occurs when the individual components in a chaotic system come together to work as a team to achieve the desired goal. Remember the non-linear component of chaotic systems? This applies during self-organization and means teams may form, work for a while then fall apart and reconstitute in a different form when an obstacle is met to keep on moving forward.

Complex Adaptive Behavior is the name given to this forming-falling apart-reforming-falling apart-… behavior. Specifically it is defined as many agents working in parallel to accomplish a goal. It is conflict ridden, very fluid, and very positive. The hallmark of emergent, complex adaptive behavior is it brings about a change from the starting point that is not just different in degree but in kind. In biology a good example of this is the emergence of consciousness. Another example is the Manhattan Project and the development of the atomic bomb.

Back to Linearity

The development of a complex system within a chaotic situation has a big plus. Complex systems can cross over into predictability where the newly developed rules work, e.g., the actual development and delivery of the atomic bomb. Remember the equilibium-disequilibrium talked about in the previous blog?

We now have a good basis for moving forward. In future blogs we will draw upon both the vocabulary and frame-of-mind presented here to look at how one leads in chaotic situations.

Chaos and Complexity #1: Coyotes, Chaos and Complexity

by Gary Monti on September 14, 2010

In this series we will dive into the complexities of…well…chaos and complexity. Why? A possible first thought is they are the “in” topics today – flavors of the month. The answer and the reality are far simpler. We have to deal with them on a daily basis. And, we have to get good at it if we are to survive and thrive.

There is another important reason. It has to do with the uniqueness of the theories. Chaos and complexity have broad application across many apparently different aspects of life from heart arrhythmias to children playing on a playground to counterinsurgencies. The list goes on-and-on.

So, let’s get started. But where? A good place is basic definitions along with how the two are connected.


A common misconception regarding chaos is viewing it as synonymous with “random.” While that can be true in everyday use the two words are quite different when looked at in terms of chaos theory.

In chaos theory “random” refers to complete lack of structure and patterns. A classic example is the motion of gas molecules at the microscopic level. Newton would be driven crazy trying to predict their trajectories. (If you’ve had some physics you might recall the challenge of working with three-bodied problems or a double pendulum.)

Chaos on the other hand is quite different. Specifically, it applies to any system which has definitive rules of operation but shows nonlinear behavior. Assuming that is about as clear as mud some explanation may help.

“Nonlinearity” has some specific criteria which appear when looking at the elements of a chaotic system :

  • A chaotic system comprises components connected through deterministic rules;
  • With a given starting point in time a chaotic system ends up behaving in ways the rules cannot predict. This is the nonlinearity. It is rather strange. In every day terms what this means is a given system can be started at the exact same point two different times and the results will be both unpredictable and different. Multiparty, parliamentary systems reflect this well. The rules for operating the system are fairly constant. Forming a coalition government can be quite the example of nonlinearity as can be seen in modern day Iraq.

This can be maddening. The rules are clear, the components of the system are thoroughly understood by everyone and yet it’s impossible to get consistent results. What makes it even crazier is a third component:

  • The rules work and outcomes can be predicted in the immediate vicinity of a few components when a very short time span is used.

An example might help right now.

All of the above is observable in efforts to eliminate coyotes. Individual coyotes have been killed. However, efforts to do this on a mass scale has produced some interesting results. In the mid-eighteenth century coyotes were west of the Mississippi in about 11 states. Efforts to eliminate them have failed spectacularly with coyotes being in all 48 contiguous states. They have  lost their shyness of man and now live in urban areas. (Ironically, while I was conducting a workshop on complexity in downtown Chicago, on the floor below a coyote walked in off the street, jumped into an empty juice cooler inside the hotel’s quick stop store, rested for 20 minutes and then took off! The security video made the national news.)

This ability to thrive in chaotic situations leads to complexity.


Four characteristics define complexity:

  • Adaptability
  • Connection
  • Interdependence
  • Diversity

Complex systems are a subset of chaotic ones in that they are nonlinear. Decisions are made on a microlevel and bubble up to the macro. This is in stark contrast to social engineering where everything is top-down. Coyote social systems reflect all 4 components quite well. Faced with annihilation the coyotes branched out geographically and socially and tried new behaviors (diversity). If the changes worked they stuck (adaptability). The lesson spread quickly through the social structure (connection) with individual behavior graduating to coordinated social behavior (interdependence).

Packs now go through some neighborhoods hunting for pets. In some areas attacks on young children have been reported. The latter behavior is not as successful (adult supervision) as the former so there is less of it. Regardless, the coyotes keep changing their game plan at a tactical level to simply find out what works and the change migrates up the social ladder to become a pack strategy.

This bottom-up approach to change has been alluded to in a previous blog (Executive Map) and is a hallmark of a type of organizational structure essential for success in chaotic situations – complex adaptive systems.

That is enough for now. As the series progresses we will go through the looking glass and see things from a very different perspective: one that is both familiar and strange: familiar because, after all, you’ve made it this far; strange because it cuts against the grain of some commonly held beliefs taken as truth.

Quality #4: Simplifying Processes

by Tanmay Vora on November 12, 2009

keep it simpleWelcome to the fourth part of a 12-part series titled #QUALITYtweet – 12 Ideas to Build a Quality Culture.

Here are the first three posts, in case you would like to go back and take a look:

  1. Quality #1: Quality is a long term differentiator
  2. Quality #2: Cure Precedes Prevention
  3. Quality #3: Great People + Good Processes = Great Quality

#QUALITYtweet Want to add complexity?

Get obsessed with a solution without

focusing on the real problem.

We love complexity because thinking complex solutions give us a false sense of achieving something worthwhile. Two questions to ponder:

1)      Is your complex solution accurately solving the problem?

2)      Is there a simpler way to solve the same problem?

Consider this story:

One of the most memorable case studies on Japanese Management was the case of the empty soapbox, which happened in one of Japan’s biggest cosmetics companies. The company received a complaint that a consumer had bought a soap box that was empty. Immediately the authorities isolated the problem to the assembly line, which transported all the packaged boxes of soap to the delivery department. For some reason, one soapbox went through the assembly line empty.

Management asked its engineers to solve the problem. Post-haste, the engineers worked hard to devise an X-ray machine with high-resolution monitors manned by two people to watch all the soap boxes that passed through the line to make sure they were not empty. No doubt, they worked hard and they worked fast but spent a whoopee amount to do so. Now, when a rank-and-file employee in a small company was posed with the same problem, he did not get into complications of X-rays, etc but instead came out with another solution.

He bought a strong industrial electric fan and pointed it at the assembly line. He switched the fan on, and as each soap box passed the fan, it simply blew the empty boxes out of the line.

Implementing complex review process or a complex workflow is relatively easy. Picking up an off-the-shelf best practice is easy too. Identifying the simplest solution that best solves the problem is difficult.

When you improve your processes constantly over a period of time, adding new steps to the process, it tends to get complex.  Simplification of process requires you to think with a fresh perspective (and may be a fresh set of people) and ask a simple question: “What problem is this process intended to solve?”

The answer often reveals that there are much simpler ways of solving the problem.