Beyond Complexity

Oliver Wendell Holmes (OWH) was a Supreme Court Justice who once said something so profound, that few people at the time, including himself, really understood the depth of the sentiment.

There are a few slightly different versions, quoted in various places, but I think this one best captures the sentiment. He also said a few other things, many notable, some stupid and several now unrepeatable. With regard to this quote, he is essentially saying that either side of the inherent ambiguity of complex situations, there are a couple of calmer more understandable spaces, but and this is the crux, those other spaces are not the same. They are easily confused by the uninitiated, but they are fundamentally different to operate within, effectively.

This Side…

We’re all familiar with the simple stuff “this side” as he calls it. There are some things that are enduring, easy to understand, buried in common knowledge, do what they are supposed to and for the most part, just are. Typically they do not have many working parts. You can usually learn this stuff by copying people who are already good at it, or just having a go.

Hit the nail on the head, with the hammer.

#Simple things require action.

By the way, the hammer can be anything capable of transferring momentum from your hand to the end of the nail and some things, are better at being hammers than others! Now if you take a pile of that simple stuff and jam it together, you can get it all to work in sync, then you can standardise some of it and even automate some bits to be bigger and faster. Finally, you can line it up under one factory roof to achieve some highly specified and predetermined output and all of a sudden, what was once simple, now seems very complicated. But this is not the complexity that OWH was referring to.

You can essentially still plan the living daylights out of this stuff and make pretty good predictions about what all that machinery is capable of. You can then set up all sorts of structures and processes to control everything and make sure it stays that way. You can manage the arse out of it, because it’s nature is still inherently simple. Anyone can understand it with enough time to look at all the different bits, maybe take them apart and put them back together properly, so you’ll probably also need an expert in such matters, to teach you how it all works.

Hit the nail on the head, with a Robotic Arc Weld.

#Complicated things require expertise.

Complex things don’t work like that. You cannot just increase the number of simple bits beyond some threshold and suddenly get complex behaviour. There is a phase shift in the level and type of interaction between the things and how those things react to each other, the environment and various constraints that can absorb, deflect or magnify the energy in those interactions.

The biggest phase shift of all from the complicated – and the easiest one to understand – is that in complexity, there are signs of life. Not all complex systems are alive, or completely alive in strict terms. After all, you are alive, but the oxygen running around your system is not: and that’s despite the fact that about 65% of your body weight is actually Oxygen. I know, freaky!!

So this Complexity thing is not intuitive? Well actually it mostly is, as that’s where we live, in its midst, so to speak, most of the time. But it’s not the way that we are taught how the world works in school, so to get your head around it, requires unlearning a load of deep rooted assumptions. I’m a decade or two in and still learning and practicing, but this blog is neither a shallow dive in the penthouse pool, nor a deep root around the basement of complexity. I’ve talked about that stuff before. This blog is about the “so what” of complexity, which is exactly what OWH was getting at.

Within complexity…

I’ve also talked about the gaining of insight before, but this is worth repeating, albeit in an extended metaphor. When you live and perhaps more importantly work with those simple tasks and in those complicated places, things are crisp and clear: or at least that’s how most institutions make it all out to be.

But remember back when you were a novice, if there was something unusual or critical going on, it was sort of inside a big glass box. You could push your nose right up against the glass, walk around it, you could see things going on. It was jammed full of people moving about, but it seemed all sort of muted and difficult to make out. Even if you tried to say something, it’s like the people in the box couldn’t really hear you or see you. Then one day, something kicked off nearby and you dived in to help. As you were cracking on with stuff, it suddenly dawned on you, that you too were now inside the glass tank, in the thick of it; but now everything seemed much clearer, you could see what was going on, join in the conversations and people paid attention.

Hit the nail on the head, with appreciation for its situation.

#Complex things require insight.

An analogy too far, you might think, but go and read some Gary Klein before making up your mind. In truth, you were actually the one behind the glass all along. In a little tank in the corner of the room, like an aquarium for novices. Once you’re out, you can’t go back in and what’s more, you wouldn’t want to even if you could: you’ve outgrown it.

More worryingly, despite your best intentions, when you try and talk to your little fishy friends, they now don’t seem to really understand what you’re saying. You begin to doubt that they could do much to help anyway, from inside their little tank.

Now, this is not a metaphor for intellectual superiority. Put the cleverest bloke in the world, in a Sushi Kitchen for the first time and he’s going to feel like one of the fish. Everyone is novice at almost everything other than those few simple things and those few complicated places that are familiar.

Take the Cardiff expert in Appendectomy to the Global Appendectomy Conference and she is no longer the Appendectomy Expert in the room. Interestingly she is probably now the expert in Cardiff. Expert, for the most part, is not an intellectual position, it is a social position: you simply know more about a subject than the people around you. The insight I’m referring to is all about gaining experience: subject and context.

The Other Side…

When you have immersed yourself in a complex living area of life and work, you have gained a thing called experience which is different to expertise. But only if, at the time, you consciously realised that’s where you were and spent some deliberate time and effort to reflect on, study and develop yourself in that space. Out of all that experience you will (this is what humans do) naturally hone your skills and build some ideas about how the place works, in the form of Heuristics that you’ve come to rely upon.

Heuristics are not the same as rules, they are flexible and context dependent – rules of thumb perhaps, malleable constraints possibly – and are as much about avoiding failure as they are closing in on success. Not only do you know a bit about your subject, but also what to do with it, in which situation and including when not to do anything, at all. Rather than knowing what everything is, like an expert, it can be much more important to know what something is not.

That’s a massive lesson in clinical practice that everyone learns, eventually. Think of it, like being able to spot asymmetry, a mismatch or missing piece and to be able to look at a situation from different perspectives. The best way to do that in practice, is to get enough people together – with lots of different experiences, in different things and in different places – to form some interpersonal relationships.

Spend time together and they will build an appreciation for one and other’s similarities and differences. You then got the potential to recognise and deal with pretty much whatever, turns up next. Oh and before someone says ‘teamwork’, I should probably point out that there are loads of different types of collections of humans and they all have strengths and weaknesses.

One of the side effects of gathering all that experience together, particularly amidst Communities, is a compulsion not to sit back and just wait for the next thing. You go looking for it, because collectively, you can already imagine what that next thing could be. So that gaggle of people talk to each other, they invite others to play games, they learn how to improvise, to deliberately bugger things up to learn about what else to do and how each other copes, in those scenarios.

Call it professional curiosity, a vocation or the slightly weird love of your life, this is what immersing yourself in your corner of the world is all about. It’s here that you can reach into the dark corners of the minds of the people nearby and find the most amazing insight and experience. Yes, yes and some other things that are best kept for the team night out. The hammer, the nail, a dodgy grip and a wild swing, all set to the music in your head.

Hit the nail on the head, with practise and timing.

#Tactical things require experience.

If you’ve never left the tank and not gained insight and experience, then the only place you can go, beyond the complicated, is straight into a bloody mess. Sometimes, it already turned into a bloody mess before you got there and the trick is then, to spot it.

The thing with a mess is that it often defies definition because, at least for a short while, you don’t know what’s going on. Good and bad causes and effects are all mixed up and the space is full of people who can’t tell shit from custard, flailing at hammers with fistfuls of nails.

Now believe it or not, if a situation truly is chaotic the only thing to do is, join in. Try not to make it worse, but you might, until you can figure out a bit of it. Once you’ve nailed a bit of the jelly, the Experience, Insight, Expertise and Action can kick back in, accordingly.

Hit the nail on the head, blindfolded, with two hammers.

#Chaotic things require a bit of luck.

I’ve seen two very similar people, with similar backgrounds, in the same job, in slightly different situations, doing the same thing in two completely different, but equally successful ways. I’ve seen people break the established rules to do a much better job and then stick to another rule despite protestations, only to prove it’s a bloody good Heuristic. This is the nature of working in and around complexity. We each develop our Craft, in a co-evolving dance around one and other, doing those simple things, in those complicated places, generating those complex insights, on the fly. The development of a shared experiential space, is the most important preparation for uncertainty.

It’s how you develop trust in the people around you, get to know what they’re good at, what they need help with, what they hate doing, love doing and why sometimes, they are a complete arsehole: while firmly remaining in number one spot, on your all time list of favourite arseholes. I’m sure to be on one or two of those lists!!

Giving a Fig…

Societies all over the world seem to be losing respect for this human Craft, distracted by the instantaneousness of the shallow and the Shiny. Look at the people who hold positions of leadership in some of our national institutions: I could name many but let’s say, Downing Street. People with no Craft.

They’ve never left the aquarium, just sat back in their sense of entitlement, building bigger and bigger tanks with fairy-tale castles, sunken ships and ever more complicated water filters to prevent them from drowning in their own shit.

These guys (it is mostly men) are obsessed with complicated secret plans to control everything, tell everyone what to do and make sure nothing varies from the inevitably self-aggrandising goal. Unfortunately for the rest of us, one day their beloved ideology comes up against something truly complex, like a pandemic!

Then, like all plans held up in the face of an enemy, it’s one quick pass and straight down the toilet. I’ve just had an idea about the Bog Roll crisis. Fortunately, we do have a few experienced people who do, ‘give a fig’. They are occasionally employed to tend the aquarium. Having been out in the complex world, done their time and still in the thick of it, they are often nursing an altruistic desire to pass on their wisdom, before they toddle off. Again that’s called preparation.

These people, typically steeped in the subject and the context and the excitement of both interacting, admit straight away to not knowing everything and being able to predict, even less. After all, they learned that a long time ago, when they graduated from the aquarium. Thankfully, they can give some bloody good advice and explain what may happen regarding their little corner of the world, should certain circumstances arise.

Sometimes that advice seems remarkably simple, even counter-intuitively so, yet this is the simplicity at the far side of complexity that OWH was talking about. Wash your hands and keep your distance.

Nobody suddenly became an expert in Coronavirus overnight, mainly because it has been around in one form or another since the 1960s. A couple of insightful Microbiologists from Hong Kong went a step further and predicted the current Coronavirus outbreak. The closing statement in their 2007 Publication, is chilling:

The presence of a large reservoir of SARS-CoV-like viruses in horseshoe bats, together with the culture of eating exotic mammals in southern China, is a time bomb. The possibility of the reemergence of SARS and other novel viruses from animals or laboratories and therefore the need for preparedness, should not be ignored.

What’s more, nobody became a Microbiologist, Epidemiologist, Pandemic Virologist, Anaesthetic Intensivist or even a bloody good nurse or therapist, overnight. These people already knew most of the stuff that now, more of us need to know. We should have been much much better prepared.

Planning for something Simple on this side of complexity, is not the same as, preparing for something Tactical on the far side.


These people collectively hold a form of wisdom, simplicity beyond complexity, that is like the rules that underpin the Murmurations I blogged about last time. We’re working in the realm of may happen, may work, may not, but the trick is not to be bounded by the perfection of the simplicity on this side of complexity – that demands the certainty of an equally hammered cause, to an equally nailed effect. A few tweets this morning reminded me about this.

Planning is good for predicable controllable Simple Things. For unpredictable uncontrollable Complex Things, you need a range of plans, some contradictory, some potty, some obvious. You also need a space with no plans, just a cupboard full of useful stuff from the last half a dozen times something weird happened. Even a box load of old plans can be useful in a ‘one eye on history’ sort of way. You also need people who know what’s in the cupboard, who have practised doing stuff that they don’t usually do, in places that they don’t usually do them. In doing so, they often break stuff, but then they add to the cupboard, some experience about how stuff breaks and what else you could do when that happens.

These people have got no qualms about pushing Jugglers into one problem and Sergeant Majors into another, while getting pretty good at guessing which one is which. There are people who’ve got two and hide one, near to where they are likely to need it next. There are also people with none, who know where everything is hidden. This kind of work is not about Strategy and planning, this is about Tactics and preparation. This is all about really understanding the assets that you’ve already got, appreciating them, looking after them really well with an occasional polish and then and only then, deploying those assets when in proximity to favourable conditions.

Tactics without Strategy, may end in failure. A Strategy without Tactics, has already failed.


Meanwhile, we’ve been hijacked by the revitalift, off the shelf, kills 99%, regulation carrot, antibacterial, rechargeable, crushed avacado, on demand, single use, including postage and packaging, instantaneous, keep refrigerated, chochomochalatiato, tommy-tipee, buy one get one free, disposable, imported strength, plastic bag of grated cheese, vacuous celebrity, crystal waving, low hanging fruit flavoured, vitamin enriched gobshite of the uninitiated, sending the unrepresented, right up the unintended, under a mass media blindfold. Arrgghh!

Give My Life…

I am really worried that we are losing our human-craft in the face of ever increasing commodification of life and work. We don’t appreciate some of the simplicity beyond complexity and confuse that with the complicated. To take a complex situation and try to force it back into the aquarium, is to deny the lived experience, the uncertainty and the diversity and you’re left with a dangerous Simplification. Herd Immunity!

That which is beyond complexity as OWH put it, is best renamed and re-imagined as a Distillation and in crafting it, there are no shortcuts.

Perhaps wisdom, is drawing out the essence of complex living things, without losing the wonderful depth and texture of what keeps it alive. In the search for the instant gratification of complicated convenience, we’ve undervalued the complex maturity of embodied wisdom and that has in turn, tipped us inevitably into the chaos of no choice.

Fortunately, in my beloved NHS, we’ve still got buckets of knowledge and skills, a butter mountain of kindness and a backed up motorway’s worth of lorries, loaded with experience. We haven’t got enough of it and it’s running out and it’s getting worn out. Bloody Brexit!

Perhaps, it’s about time we showed a little more respect for the Craft required to care for people. From the collective responsibilities of WHO, all the way down to the individual Care Workers who, just a few weeks ago were being branded as unskilled and unworthy of a living wage… by an aquarium full of politicians now hanging a nation’s fate upon them. If all the utilities went off today, how useful would your House be, in keeping you and your loved ones warm and clean and fed? You may be about to find out.

Wisdom is that thing you’re left with, after everything else, has been used up. Time to flush the tank?


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