Embrace complexity

“We’re in the complexity business,” is a phrase that comes to mind surprisingly often these days.

It’s usually triggered by a discussion – with a colleague, client, collaborator (sometimes all three) – about social media that’s been rolling for a while until it reaches the point where we have the issue in our sights, clear as day and someone says: “That’s really complicated.”

That’s when I say it – sometimes just in my head if I don’t think it’s going to help the conversation.

The “complexity business” phrase isn’t intended as boastful or macho or even “can do”. It’s more a calming statement of fact, a reassurance that complex is OK. Complex is what we have to deal with.

It all comes down, yet again to networks, to the online world we’re living in. There’s no way things aren’t going to be complex when the stability, the somewhat misleading simplicity, of mass media and marketing is being blown apart by the reality of life on the web, of living in networks.

When you accept that complexity – massive online networks, a superabundance of stuff, a constantly changing and evolving online world – is not going to settle down soon it all gets a little easier to cope with. When you realise the pace of change in this revolution is not going to slow down anytime soon, you have to start accepting complexity as a fact of life.

What sparked me off on this micro-rant was a post by Mark Earls refusing to accept the simple answers for things like, say, the current financial markets storm:

Sorry – I know we’d all have prefered something more headline grabbing – like it was “Bush what done it”. Truth is the world ain’t like that. Note to managers everywhere. Note to marketers. Note to myself (cause I’m just as prone as anyone else to trace simplistic cause and effect relationships

In a way, life’s a lot simpler when you embrace complexity. You don’t have to keep looking for the one simple answer to things that doesn’t exist for each challenge.

It’s why I feel uncomfortable starting conversations with companies with a questions like: How can we start a community? How do we leverage social networks? How can we support the launch of product X with some social media?

Tactical questions, simple questions that just can’t be answered simply. You need to start by understanding the complexity – the speed of growth, the sheer vastness, the revolutionary implications on the behaviours of people like customers and employees – of the your networks.

Equally paradoxical, and pleasingly so, is the fact that some simplicity is what is most needed at a strategic level when you are facing the challenges of a super-complex world.

Principles. Strong, real, heartfelt principles are what you need to guide you in the networks. You set your direction and head out not knowing what you will find but knowing that you’ll have the answers about what’s best to do if you keep returning to the principles you set out at the start of your voyage.

And it is a voyage…

3 responses to “Embrace complexity”

  1. Great post. In the last year we’ve made some sound connections amidst the complexity you so eloquently describe above. Simple connections usually, ie that’s a good idea – let’s try it.

    It’s a pleasure working with you Sir Mayfield.

  2. Great post. Reminds me of a conversation in a hire car about Kevin Kelly’s idea of sustainable disequilibrium – http://www.kk.org/newrules/newrules-8.html

  3. Thanks, Jason – must read that!

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