Working Notes of a Practising Neo-Generalist (#21) — An artful explanation of the complicated and the complex

Mark Storm
Jul 18, 2018 · 3 min read
“In [Eva] Hesse’s last piece, which she referred to as the ‘rope piece,’ knots are places of disconnection and of made connections; one could say these joinings are places of weakness. But that depends on whether one sees these knots as joining for the first time, or as a kind of repair. Hesse’s knots can only be both,” Anne Michaels writes in Infinite GradationRope Piece, by Eva Hesse (1970, Whitney Museum of American Art)

“If anyone can refute me — show me I’m making a mistake or looking at things from the wrong perspective — I’ll gladly change. It’s the truth I’m after, and the truth never harmed anyone. What harms us is to persist in self-deceit and ignorance.” — Marcus Aurelius in Meditations, Book 6:21 (Gregory Hays, The Modern Library, New York)


An artful explanation of the complicated and the complex

Today’s complexity forces us to live in multiple worlds at the same time — one characterized by ‘either/or’ thinking; the other by an ambiguous ‘both/and.’ The first traditional and familiar; the latter paradoxical and alien to most of today’s business and, of course, also political leaders.

The best way to make these differences clear, is by putting Piet Mondrian’s ‘Composition with Large Red Plane, Yellow, Black, Gray, and Blue’ (1921) next to Jackson Pollock’s ‘Number 14: Gray’ (1948). (This isn’t about which painting or artist you prefer. It is merely a metaphor for showing the crucial differences between the complicated and the complex.)

Mondrian’s painting is rigidly structured, comprehensible and predictable. It is how most business leaders see the world: mechanical and linear.

Composition with Large Red Plane, Yellow, Black, Gray, and Blue, by Piet Mondrian (1921).

Now try to find a single straight line or a central focal point in the painting by Pollock. You simply won’t. But it offers countless possibilities to ‘connect the dots’; each just as good as the other. It is also, as Charles Handy explains in his speech at the 5th Global Peter Drucker Forum, “unmanageable.” There is only one way to find out what works: explore and experiment.

Number 14: Gray, by Jackson Pollock (1948).

What better way to describe the complex and interconnected environments in which companies and their leaders operate and compete?

But we won’t be able to understand complexity unless we spend more time in not knowing. Unfortunately, we aren’t trained to ‘not know.’ Most of us were taught to be certain and confident, to state our opinion as if it were true. We haven’t been rewarded for being confused. Or for asking more questions rather than giving quick answers.

What we need to understand complexity is curiosity; a curiosity for the things on and beyond the edges of our knowledge.


“The ability to think past either/or situations is the foundation of critical thinking, but still, it requires courage. Getting curious and asking questions happens outside our bunkers of certainty.” — Brené Brown in Braving the Wilderness

Mark Storm

Written by

leadership confidant | leading a life of questioning and critical thinking | varius multiplex multiformis

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade