July 27, 2016 JV

Simplifying the hell out of Complex Problems

fish-schooling-awesomePicture this – you’re riding in a car, waiting at the lights and sorting through some CD’s when out of the corner of your eye, the car next to you appears to roll forwards.  Whoa!! Is he moving forwards or are we rolling backwards?  What’s behind us? Has the handbrake failed?  Mildly panic-stricken, you do what comes naturally.  Your eyes dart about, looking for the nearest fixed, external point of reference.  Phew!  We are standing still relative to the power pole.  Now, where did I put that Creedence Clearwater Revival CD?

“A single source of the truth” – a catch-cry of many of today’s business leaders.  Sick of staff rolling out their own figures to track performance and justify bogus projects, bosses consolidate corporate systems and ban spreadsheets in an attempt to set an objective standard; an indisputable reference data set.

An objective set of numbers is somehow endowed with a general sense of truthfulness.  Interestingly, however, we don’t tend to give the same level of credence to a set of behaviours.  Years of experience has confirmed to me that people tend to be dismissive of how others’ see things being done.  “It’s not that bad.”  “I see it differently.”  “Oh, that’s just your opinion.”  Unfortunately, this relativistic view of “truth in behaviour” leads to a vice-like grip on behaviours.  Why is that so?

One way of describing culture is “the way we do things around here.”  If we shape our culture well, we can be confident that everyone will be doing what they are supposed to.  However, the second law of thermodynamics and a diversity of inputs (see https://jvpienew.wpenginepowered.com/is-your-cultural-change-effort-catching-the-flu/) often leads to poor performance.  Now add to this, vested interests and cross-purposes and what we end up with is a complex set of behaviours that are very difficult to unravel.  The big issues often get reinforced (unwittingly) and become intractable, remaining in place indefinitely if left untreated.  A key reason for this is that the complexity of problems remains cloaked in obscurity with each person having their own personal “version of the truth.”

In the 90’s, through his book “The Fifth Discipline,” Peter Senge introduced Complexity science to business.  At the time, I was fortunate enough to have a mentor who encouraged me to read “Chaos” by Gleick and “Complexity” by Waldrop, so I had a pretty decent grasp on the discipline while reading Senge’s work.  A few years later, David Snowden added some interesting perspectives on the subject and I was hooked.  I wanted to use these concepts to help my colleagues in BHP Billiton break free of the problems that were eating their lunch.  While conducting Excellence Evaluations, I was fortunate enough to work with Richard Blayden, who was on a similar journey.  Richard blazed the trail for us, developing a new type of diagnostic tool.  It was loosely based on Senge’s Systems Thinking and incorporated the classic vicious circles and delays while also lending from simple root cause analysis techniques.  I learnt from Richard and then developed my own style as I applied the methodology with various clients.

The way it works is that you ask a bunch of people what their big issues are (within a defined scope) and what Causal Diagramcauses them.  However, the secret sauce is in being able to connect these together in a way that best represents reality.  With trial and error and by testing hypotheses with evidence, it is possible to settle on a diagram of causal relationships that everyone agrees with; a single version of the “truth in behaviour” which then provides a starting point for change.

To help explain this a little better, I’m copying here a part of a causal diagram that Richard created.  If you’ve worked in an industrial setting, I’m sure you’ve experienced something similar.  Breakdown maintenance or “firefighting” is all too common.  But there is a way out of a complex problem like this – simplify the hell out of it.

Here are the steps:

  1. Eliminate any relativistic thinking – agree, as a team that you can arrive at a single version of the truth in behaviour.
  2. Engage someone who knows how to work with you to develop a causal model of the complex problems you are dealing with.
  3. Test the various causal relationships to determine the veracity of the model. Be willing to follow the evidence where it leads and when everyone is satisfied, finalise the diagram.
  4. Identify the critical nodes and relationship – vicious circles and dominant causes.
  5. Attack these critical nodes and relationships. The actions will be self-evident and simple.

Don’t despair.  The truth will set you free.

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