Is Complexity Real?

In a series of articles in Harvard Business Review,   Roger Martin questions the widely held assertion that our world is growing ever more complex. Instead, Martin argues that much of what we perceive as complexity is actually self inflicted by how we go about acquiring knowledge and proposes a new discipline to counter the problem.

To start, he references Peter Senge’s classic work, The Fifth Discipline: The Art & Practice of The Learning Organization.   Senge states that there are two types of complexity, detail complexity in which there are many variables, and dynamic complexity, “situations where cause and effect are subtle and where the effects over time of interventions are not obvious”.

Learning, according to Martin, begins with mystery, in which we don’t even know which variables are important.  Over time, as learn which variables to study, and begin to understand cause and effect.

…most of the guns deployed in modern knowledge advancement are aimed at narrow problems for which the cause-and-effect relationship is specified with the famous “all other things being equal” proviso. Each narrow knowledge domain develops analytical tool-sets that deepen the narrow knowledge domain. Each narrow domain develops ever more algorithmic knowledge, and those developing the knowledge are extremely confident that they are right because they are so specialized within their own domain. The liver expert is completely confident that he or she is correct even if it is the interaction with another condition that threatens your health most.

Because of this constant narrowing of scope,  Martin contends that we have created a new type of complexity, Inter Domain Complexity

 Every field is segmented into multiple domains, each with deep algorithmic knowledge, specialized tools, and experts in the domain who think they are absolutely right.

But the real world doesn’t fall neatly into different domains.  In the real world, domains interact with each other in subtle and complex ways.  To counter the problem  Martin suggest that a new domain, specifically focused on interdomain knowledge be developed.  m

I believe that the solution to the self-inflicted problem of inter-domain complexity is the development of a meta-domain: the domain of knowledge about how to integrate across knowledge domains. While this might seem on its face to be an esoteric or even unapproachable knowledge domain, it really isn’t either. There are techniques for tackling fully clashing models from different knowledge domains.

We have seen the need for this meta domain in our work with System Engineers and Business Analysts/Architects.

We look forward to learning more about Martin’s work, and the impact he is having


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