What’s the best thing to do when you find yourself out of your depth, confused and overwhelmed? Find an expert?
Perhaps. It depends on the situation.
And what if you are an expert? What follows is important if you’re a coach, consultant or trainer – or if you ever hire such people.
According to Dave Snowden’s Cynefin framework, it the best thing to do depends specifically on whether you’re in a “Complicated” or a “Complex” situation.
A Complicated situation has loads of moving parts, and though there is a clear relationship between cause and effect, not everyone can see it. It’s often baffling, but it is potentially knowable – and an expert will understand how it works and what to do. The right thing to do, according to Snowden’s model, is to get great advice.
On the other hand, a Complex domain isn’t knowable in the same way. It’s made up of large numbers of interacting forces, and is in constant flux. There are no obvious cause-effect relationships, and small changes can have disproportionate effects – the flap of a butterfly’s wing can “cause” a tornado.
What’s the best thing to do in a Complex situation? Instead of frantically gathering more and more data to analyse, or guessing wildly and attempting to impose a course of action, Snowden’s model suggests that people should be patient. They need to probe and sense, then respond.
As the Harvard Business Review puts it, Complex is the domain to which much of contemporary business has shifted.
I’d go further: anything involving people probably counts as Complex. Our constant connection to the internet multiplies our interactions and the potential for disproportionate effects: it’s no longer sensible to treat an individual human being as a “unit of labour” (if it ever was).
I suspect that one could reasonably treat the inner world of a single human as a Complex domain, too.
When we’re dealing with people, we’re dealing with the Complex.
And yet… we’ve been brought up to believe the world is Complicated. We believe it should be possible to understand and control it, if only we could build a clever enough spreadsheet.
So, when people have problems, they head onto Google to look for an expert. “There’ll be a YouTube video somewhere that’ll tell me how to fix it – and if not, maybe I can buy a book or hire someone.”
And, funnily enough, the quick and easy solutions these experts offer frequently don’t work. They’re grand for Complicated problems like fixing the gears on my bike – but not for Complex ones, like developing a collaborative team from a dispersed group of freelances dotted around the world.
The expert you need in a Complex situation is not a subject-matter expert.
It’s an even better kind of expert – an expert in navigating Complexity. Someone who can show you how to probe-sense-respond and hold your hand while you do that the first few times.
And that’s what I do for a living.
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