September 26, 2023

learning in complexity and chaos

Author: Harold Jarche
Go to Source

Most of our current work structures are designed to address complicated situations, such as constructing a building, launching a campaign, or designing a piece of equipment. But more of our challenges are complex and cannot be solved in a standard way —  inequality, refugees, populism, racism. Whenever people are involved, within a global context of climate change, the situation is likely complex. In complex situations there is less reliance on detailed plans and analysis and a greater emphasis on continuous experimentation coupled with good observation and tracking. We have to learn constantly in complexity.

Complexity & Chaos

According to the Cynefin framework we should Probe > Sense > Respond when dealing with complexity, as opposed to Analyze > Sense > Respond when the situation is complicated. Mechanical systems are complicated, but human systems are complex. It means that we cannot over-plan, though planning itself prepares us to deal with what emerges as we probe complex situations and environments. In complicated conditions we can rely on established good practices, but in complex ones we need to continuously develop our own emergent practices.

In Chaos: A User’s Guide, Bruno Marion concludes that the world today is not just complex, but even chaotic.

“Never in the history of humanity has a single human being had so much power. Never in the history of humanity have YOU had so much power!

Optimistic or pessimistic, it is like being a spectator of a film of which we seem to know the ending, whether happy or unhappy. Today one must cease to be a passive spectator but an actor in this fast-changing world.”

Two recent political events indicate that not only do we have to organize ourselves to deal with complexity but that we have to be resilient to chaos. When the New York Times published a major article by an anonymous author it was a defining moment in the history of journalism. Never before had this prestigious paper allowed an anonymous editorial. The Times gave their reason for this unprecedented move.

“The Times is taking the rare step of publishing an anonymous Op-Ed essay. We have done so at the request of the author, a senior official in the Trump administration whose identity is known to us and whose job would be jeopardized by its disclosure. We believe publishing this essay anonymously is the only way to deliver an important perspective to our readers.” —NYT 2018-09-05

Shortly thereafter, Bob Woodward, author of Fear: Trump in the White House, referred to the 2018 US political situation as chaotic.  Perhaps The Times was dealing with chaos from the perspective of the Cynefin framework. To repeat:

In Complexity you must Probe > Sense > Respond and develop Emergent Practices

But in in Chaos you must Act > Sense > Respond and develop Novel Practices.

This anonymous Op-Ed was definitely a Novel approach.

While many of our professions and organizations can deal with complexity, few are adapted to deal with chaos on a large scale. Promoting or taking advantage of chaos  — as described by Naomi Klein in The Shock Doctrine — keeps one’s opponents off-balance. As more populist governments — succinctly described as based on xenophobic authoritarianism — flex their power, we may see more of these chaos-based novel practices.

When it comes to the institutions that guard our democracy, resilience to chaos and the use of novel approaches to governance now become necessary. It will require much more flexibility and creative thinking. How can democracies and their citizens prepare themselves for the likely chaos to come? Not understanding what domain we are working/living in  — Complicated, Complex, Chaotic — can lead to disorder. We need the right approaches for the situation. We have to develop better ways to deal with complexity and chaos — the new political normal.


In complexity, cooperation trumps collaboration. Collaboration means working together for a common objective around some kind of plan or structure. Cooperation is sharing freely with no expectation of direct reciprocity. Cooperation presumes the freedom of individuals to join and participate. Work teams are collaborative. Communities of practice are cooperative. Sharing  on social media is usually cooperative — unless you are in marketing. Cooperation is also a driver of creativity as it enables more and varied connections with people and with ideas. Cooperation is a fundamental behaviour for effectively working in networks, and it’s in networks where most of us will be working in the digital age.

People in knowledge networks cannot be told what to do, only influenced through other people due to their reputation. If people don’t like you, they won’t connect. In a hierarchy you only have to please your boss. In a distributed network you have to be seen as having some value, though not the same value, by many others.

Cooperation is not the same as collaboration, though they are complementary. Teams, groups, and markets collaborate. Social networks and communities of practice usually cooperate. Working cooperatively requires a different mindset than merely collaborating on a defined project. It requires curiosity.

While all levels of complexity exist in our world, more and more of our work deals with real complex problems — in which the relationship between cause and effect can only be perceived in retrospect — whether they be social, technological, or economic. Complex environments and problems are best addressed when we organize as networks, work to continuously develop emergent practices, and cooperate to advance our aspirations.

But extreme complexity is pretty close to chaos and it seems that more of the situations we are dealing with — violent political action, climate change — are rather chaotic. Complexity and chaos require us to structure for curiosity and resolve, as Apple has done with their design approach. We have to build even more flexible organizational structures. Networked, democratic environments that continuously develop emergent practices through system-wide cooperation are not enough. With frequent chaotic events to deal with we also have to organize in temporary, negotiated hierarchies that can quickly form and re-form in order to test novel practices. The ability to do this requires system-wide creativity.

Humans have the ability to deal with some very complex things, yet too often our cultural and organizational barriers block us from using these innate abilities. With increasing chaos, creativity is becoming even more important.

“The essence of genius is that it’s a misfit quality. Misfits don’t fit well into institutionalized assembly lines.” —Prof. Jeffrey Sonnenfeld

The authors of The Age of Discovery liken our current era to the European Renaissance of the 14th to 17th centuries. The Renaissance brought wonderful new discoveries — universities, astronomy, print — as well as new challenges — the pox, war, mass slavery . Our age is bringing similar discoveries — nano materials, gene therapy, artificial intelligence — and new threats — Ebola, extremism, climate change. Today, we are in desperate need of diverse thinking.

Seek difference. The point is not simply to visit different places and read different things; it’s to accumulate new perspectives. We may think we do this already, but most often we don’t, not really. We visit new spaces, but do we learn to see them through local eyes? If every business trip follows the same script — airport-taxi-hotel-office-artisinal café-taxi-airport — then the answer is no.

We need to seek out the different. Curiosity is the key to progress as individuals and as a society in times of extreme complexity.


The authors of Creative Economy Entrepreneurs  state that, “When you’re looking at opportunities within the creative environment, you’re always betting on the people.” Innovation comes from people, not technology. Their 25 years of experience reinforces the value of human connections to foster creativity.

“With so much information available and so many methods of analysis, access to knowledge is no longer the challenge. Everything is connected, and these connections happen instantly. The challenge for the Fourth Industrial Revolution becomes interpretation, reflection, and innovation. How do we create new value out of our hyperconnected knowledge?”

Machines do not reflect — people do.  The Fourth Industrial Revolution — physical, digital, and biological — like the previous three, requires a change in how we think of learning and how we support it. It’s not Reading, Writing, and Arithmetic, nor is it STEM (Science Technology, Engineering, & Medicine).

“With every industrial revolution, there has been a corresponding learning revolution that, at the time, looked prohibitively expensive. However, the cost of maintaining the status quo in the past was the cost of missed opportunity which, in many cases, was a fortune.” —Jesse Martin

Radical innovation comes from networks with large structural holes which are more diverse. This is why our social networks cannot also be work teams, or they too can become echo-chambers. Work teams can focus intensely on incremental innovation, to get better at what they already do. Communities of practice, with both strong and weak social ties, then become a bridge on this network continuum, enabling both individual and interactive creativity. To ensure diversity of thinking, all professionals have to be engaged in learning outside their organizations and cultural comfort zones in order bring in diverse ideas and knowledge which will fuel creativity.

Innovation does not happen inside a petri dish. We have to be connected to loose social networks that provide us with a view of the frontiers of our knowledge. We then need to actively engage in communities of practice to develop shared understanding among our peers. Then we can truly contribute as members of teams working on complex problems. None of this costs additional money, only time and attention.

To see the frontiers of our knowledge, we need time to interact, converse, reflect, and experiment. Doing so in a conscious way can help us master the fourth industrial revolution. We are each responsible for our learning. As the authors of The Age of Discovery say, “Don’t just get an education. Make one”.

Sensemaking with the Machines

Christian Madsbjerg, in Sensemaking: The Power of the Humanities in the Age of the Algorithm, describes sensemaking as an interaction with fellow humans in the real world.

“Sensemaking is practical wisdom grounded in the humanities. We can think of sense making as the exact opposite of algorithmic thinking: it is entirely situated in the concrete, while algorithmic thinking exists in a no-man’s land of information stripped of its specificity. Algorithmic thinking can go wide — processing trillions of terabytes of data per second — but only sense making can go deep.” —Christian Madsbjerg, Sensemaking, p. 6

Sensemaking is human but we also have to increasingly understand and work with machines.

“Rising connectivity is continuing to enable digital disruption and more jobs now than ever before can be performed anywhere in the world. Meanwhile the rise of machine capabilities is beginning to impact a number of specific tasks.” —Ross Dawson

In the book, Only Humans Need Apply, the authors identify five ways that people can work with machines. They call it ‘stepping’. I have added in parentheses the competencies I think are needed for each adaptation.

  1. Step-up: Directing the machine-augmented world (Trans-disciplinarity)
  2. Step-in: Using machines to augment work (New Media Literacy, Virtual Collaboration, Cognitive Load Management)
  3. Step-aside: Doing work that machines are not suited for (Social Intelligence, Sense-making)
  4. Step narrowly: Specializing narrowly in a field too small for augmentation (Cross-cultural Competency, Design Mindset)
  5. Step forward: Developing new augmentation systems (Novel & Adaptive Thinking, Computational Thinking)

Making sense of complex problems cannot be done alone. Relying on ourselves or a small group of internal subject matter experts is no longer enough. Organizations need to cultivate external subject matter networks. These networks are developed through trusted relationships. Each person must first be be seen as a valuable node in the’ networks. This takes time and effort. First you give to the network, then it may return the favour — exponentially. Today, all professionals are only as good as their networks and they require agile sensemaking.

“Complex environments represent a continuous challenge for sensemaking in organizations. Continuous ambiguity exerts continuous pressures on organizations to modify their patterns of interaction, information flow and decision making. Organizations struggle to address situations that are precarious, explanations that are equivocal and paradoxical, and cognitive dilemmas of all kinds. This creates a demand for innovative approaches in sensemaking. Since agility is what is required in navigating complexity, we can call these new approaches ‘agile sensemaking.’” —Bonnita Roy

Learning is the key to facing our current and future technological, environmental, and societal changes. Developing these new skills requires learning that is rather different from existing training and education systems. This is learning that is informal, requiring significant amounts of implicit knowledge, as well as social sensemaking. Critical thinking, creativity, communication, and collaboration skills are not developed in a vacuum. These are permanent social skills.

For example, the discipline of personal knowledge mastery  is a unified framework of individually-constructed enabling processes for sensemaking in complexity. PKM is staying afloat in a sea of information buoyed by knowledge networks and guided by communities of practice. It is “the number one skill set” to help each of us make sense of our world, work more effectively, and contribute to society. The PKM framework — Seek > Sense > Share — enables professionals to become knowledge catalysts.

This post is based on several published here in 2018

Read more