I attended a seminar in San Jose last week by Dave Snowden about Complexity Theory and it’s taken me about a week of processing to talk about it at all. I went on a long shot but feel it will greatly inform my work going forward. Powerful stuff. So, with apologies in advance to Mr. Snowden I’ll attempt to explain it here.
We have operated more or less in an ordered system for generations. Think farming and the industrial age. Things happen in a relatively linear fashion. You plant your crops, do the next 100 things you know to do and except for drought or flood you can expect a harvest at a future date. Plus or minus a week or two.
Same for the industrial revolution. Value was placed on your abilities to forecast future demand, organize to reach your goals and remove inefficiencies and failure.
Enter the information age, the internet and globalization and our system has gone from ordered to complex. In a complex time, like today, hindsight doesn’t produce foresight. Better to constantly be doing small market tests and measuring what customers are feeling (probes) so you can continually realign (co-evolve) with your customers. In a complex time you need to create a “safe-to-fail” environment rather than a “fail-safe” one.
In a complex time you need to ask your customers to tell you stories rather than tell you how they feel about what you sell. In a complex time you need to leave some inefficiencies in your organization. Inefficiencies create the resilience needed to adapt quickly and to pick up signals from unforeseen directions.
Imagine General Motors as an example of an organization built for an ordered world and Google as one built for a complex world.
Snowden explaining complexity theory in the context of a children’s party.
Complexity theory explained more traditionally.
His company’s website.