Good Thinking
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Good Thinking

Dancing with Complexity

Complexity? Blech.

I have come to think of myself as a complexity coach. Sure, I’m a social worker. An evaluator. A strategist. A technical writer. A behavior change designer. A facilitator. . . but it’s the ebb and flow of complexity (OK, complex adaptive systems, if you want to be technical) that keeps me happily reaching for the toolkits from all these transdisciplines**.

I love complexity theory. There, I outed myself. Think what you want — it’s dry, impersonal, confusing, abstract, irrelevant, inactionable, not practical. . . shall I go on? I get it. I do. It doesn’t really come alive until you apply it. I read about complex adaptive systems and I experience a feeling of immediate relief. My shoulders come out of my ears, I breathe easier. The description of complexity — how it behaves, its signature characteristics — align with what I experienced as a frontline social worker, they tell a more accurate story of my experiences evaluating program outcomes, it gives me a crystal clear frame that fits for designing to shift social norms and behaviors. Without it, I feel the constant pressure to jam things into a sort of simplicity, cause and effect, point A to B to C desired reality that is disingenuous at best and, at worst, dangerous in its denial of reality.

Complexity theory offers us a beautiful change to begin with what is.

Complexity theory offers us a beautiful chance to begin with what is — to more accurately look around us and begin to understand the shifting, unpredictability, pace of change, and messiness that we are always trying to manage. If we aren’t willing to be more realistic about our starting point, about where we are now, how can we find pathways forward to building better, more thriving realities?

I don’t dance.

Manage. Control for. Reduce. Make it simple.

We get tasked with a lot of these kinds of actions — a very human response to the experience of complexity. If complexity theory tells us that complex adaptive systems

  • don’t have simple cause and effects
  • have disproportionate effects from inputs
  • have new patterns emerge all the time
  • have distributed and diffuse relationships and power

Then NO THANK YOU! That sounds uncomfortable, unwieldy, and exhausting. Let’s put our effort toward trying to fix this complex adaptive system, it needs to be more mechanistic and straightforward, thank you very much.

Except. Pause. Take a breath.

By nature complexity doesn’t respond to our efforts to manage it, control it, or simplify it. It just keeps right on behaving the way we know it will. Meanwhile, we have wasted resources and invested in active denial about the systems we are operating within — ultimately greatly limiting our effectiveness.

Dancing is the answer. If you don’t dance, consider swaying awkwardly side to side and tapping a foot. Any kind of flexible movement will do. Complexity doesn’t need managing, it needs a dance partner. Moving with complexity, finding ways to be adaptive and present to the moment, staying in a learning mode that adjusts and connects — this is how to alleviate those awful feelings you associate with complexity.

Complexity doesn’t need managing, it needs a dance partner.

I seem to have a higher tolerance for uncertainty, messiness, and change than your average bear. It makes me feel curious, critical, and focused. It demands that I keep fear and judgment at bay and lean into the present moment. It keeps me at my best. (Admittedly, professionally speaking. My husband may have another take on this entirely!) If this sounds totally foreign to you, that’s OK. I’m not the only one who genuinely likes this stuff or who loves complexity coaching with individuals, teams, and whole systems. Shoot me a note, let’s chat.

**As opposed to “interdisciplinary” or “multidisciplinary” meaning a compound approach, a transdiscipline can be both a theory/perspective that applies across several disciplines and/or a something that has standalone status as a discipline while also being a tool or method used in several other disciplines — evaluation, facilitation, and design are all transdisciplinary.

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