The idea that problems are increasingly complex is incredibly common. It's taken as a truism.
If that's the case, why haven’t we reorganized our institutions to deal with it?
A quick story. In March I was at a Tamarack conference on community engagement, and I was struck by the design details of the event.
There were no panels, no real keynote speakers, and no “big names” as hooks. Most of the conference programming was led and delivered by three experts from Tamarack. It was more like a curriculum than a conference; they clearly spent a lot of time deciding on what participants needed to learn and preparing sessions to get it across. It came with a textbook-length package of tools and further reading. To some extent this is a luxury of small events, but I’ve seen it done well with 300 people, too.
This is what we’d expect of that organization; Tamarack's business is designing and facilitating collective learning and decision-making processes. Their President, Paul Born, used an example about being approached to facilitate the development of a homelessness reduction strategy in one community. The process he designed was a 2.5 day session with the key actors in the ecosystem, including senior leaders from government, NGOs, and business. He considered it the minimum amount of time required to work through the issue, have participants meaningfully reflect, and to build commitment to action.
At this point I’d like to contrast this with what I’d consider the standard approaches. Conference panels that work more like back-to-back short presentations, often without trained moderators, that barely scratch the surface of an issue. A universal meeting format of presenting an issue followed by discussion and decision, 20 minutes tops. A premium on brevity and simplicity in written materials.
Our group knowledge transfer and decision-making systems are, unequivocally, not designed for complexity.
I suspect that the common reaction to the idea of getting the 100 most influential people in a system to work through an issue for 2.5 days would be that it’d be impossible. That’s way too much time. Which is exactly what facilitators, designers, and consultants hear. “Can you help us do this?” “Yes, and it’ll take X amount of time.” “That’s too much, it has to be a half day max.”
We give lip service to the idea of complexity, but we certainly don’t behave like we appreciate it. If a given issue is complex, then it requires a deep dive and sustained attention. But if every issue brief is two pages, it’s hard to tell the difference between those that should be two pages and those that should be a book.
At which point I’m sure someone will tell me to be practical. Executives don’t have time to explore issues for 2.5 days or read long briefings. And of course I agree, but it’s exactly the problem*.
And here’s the result: instead of deep dives, we do long drags. It’s when you find a four-month project creeping into 18-month territory, and one more month doesn’t seem like much of a big deal. It’s when you realize that you have to scramble to bring stakeholders to the table that you hadn’t originally identified. It’s when you’re sending just one more briefing up, or having just one more meeting, to work out an issue with a proposal. It’s why everyone is comfortable with the oxymoronic word “reconfirm.”
This is very different from, say, agile software development. In that case, the complexity and constant iteration is scoped, planned, and designed for. But for these long drags you underestimate the amount of time and effort required, and uncover and resolve issues as much by accident as by system.
Complexity is a defining feature of the digital era, and we are not adjusting our governance structures to manage it. Just the opposite, in some ways: as authority and information became distributed and hyperconnected, the pressure towards centralized decision-making and message control became stronger. Governments have grown by orders of magnitude since we developed our conceptions of accountability, and we’ve increasingly realized that the sharp lines between issue areas are more porous than we once thought, making them effectively much broader. If your portfolio is health, it’s also education, social security, and the economy.
What hasn’t grown is the time, tools, or resources to deal with boundaryless problems with many stakeholders: everything from the most intractable policy problems to building user-centred digital services. You need deep dives, the time to do things right, and people empowered to test ideas and work across organizational lines.
To do it, governments will need to either free up senior leadership from day-to-day issues, or push authority further down the chain**. If they aren’t willing to - which is, admittedly, a reasonable position - then the appropriate conclusion is to revise expectations downwards: for the ability to solve wicked problems, collaborate between jurisdictions, or rework internal systems to create more coherent public-facing services.
I may be naive for thinking that this system can be changed, but we’re all naive if we think we can get better at dealing with complex problems if it stays the same.
*Every project lists senior executive commitment as a success factor, which is a resource that doesn't scale up with complexity. At which point it's worth noting that executives tend to overestimate the success of corporate initiatives, and underestimate the scope of organizational problems; executives are already spread more thinly than they think.
**I'd consider the Codefest events that brought internal and external communities together to develop the Web Experience Toolkit to be a shining example of both designing an event to make progress on complex work and of working-level employees having the authority to lead it.