“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.
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.
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.