More Complexity Is A Good Thing -- Really

At the Complexity Symposium

Have you ever set out to add complexity to a problem or project?  Probably not.  In the history of business, the typical goal is to simplify, focus in, and define problems and solutions to be grasped and broken down into digestible pieces so teams can move forward without becoming paralyzed by the enormity of the task.  

However, some believe the increased pace of change is calling for deeper dives in shaping new solutions.

The Complexity Symposium in Providence, R.I., held jointly by Infosys and RISD last week, explored the need to inject more complexity into thinking and strategic planning.  Attending it, I took away some lessons about applying AI.

At the conference, Indy Johar, co-founder and executive director of Dark Matter Labs, said it’s impossible to take on big challenges with point solutions.  Too often, strategists are guilty of improving the fringes of business, without going deep enough to define goals that will create true progress.  

Johar pointed to London, which addressed climate change by banning plastic straws -- a positive move, but hardly a game-changer when considering the enormity of the problem.

By contrast, Toronto identified the goal of promoting veganism, which could actually make a dent in the climate issue -- but is a massively ambitious undertaking.

In this tale of two cities, one is actually recognizing the size and scale of the problem and what it will take to fix it.

Like Lucy and Ethel at the candy conveyor belt, businesses try to adopt and apply innovation as quickly as possible, ratcheting up ROI in hard-fought-for increments.  Meanwhile, entirely new models threaten to eat their lunch in one bite.

Johar mentioned an organization in the Netherlands called Buurtzorg that has developed a community healthcare business run on a technology platform empowering nurses to manage their own schedules and assignments. It employs 10,000 nurses in the field, with just 50 central staff to manage the business -- sort of like an Uber of nursing, and a disruptor of the status quo.

Other providers in the space will have to turn business on its head to compete with this model.  More to the point, every business needs to be thinking about how it might be disrupted instead of just focusing on incremental gains.

To illustrate how to invite complexity, Global Head of Digital at Infosys Scott Sorokin pointed to a chair: “We can all see this is just a chair. But if you step back, you can note how it’s placed in the room, and from farther back, where in the building -- and if you keep zooming out, you gain an even broader perspective of how the chair fits into the city, the country, the world, etc.”

Sorokin’s point is that a broader perspective is necessary to understand how each node relates to the bigger picture.  And technology development considerations need to extend further than ever before for organizations to operate seamlessly across their ecosystems.

All this is relevant to the way AI is being applied to create intuitive systems and processes. Before determining the algorithms that will power their businesses, companies need to begin with organizing their data, right? 

No, back up.  They need to begin with how decisions will be made across their organizations.

Back up even further.  They need to consider how they will operate and what kind of business they are in. Beyond that, they actually need to consider the cultural implications of new architectures and how they fit with the values of the organizations being (re)created.  

This may feel like trying to boil the ocean and hurts the head.   But given the massive shifts that are occurring, companies looking to survive and grow will have to grapple with this process.

In doing so, they will need to hire the right kind of talent.  Mariana Amtullo, associate professor, strategic design and management at Parsons School of Design, cited a study from Unesco, The Futures of Learning Report, which projects that the top four skill sets most valued by institutions around the world will be critical thinking, problem-solving, communication and collaboration, and  creativity and innovation.  The people with these skills are the ones you will want working together to create more ambitious goals by adding complexity to the thought process.

There are big challenges ahead, along with the chance to create entirely new models for working and living.   Inventors will need to embrace complexity in order to envision and realize the future -- and that's a good thing.

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