Episode 1 - Introduction to the Clock and the Cat

The great unexplored frontier is complexity… I am convinced that nations and people that master the new science of complexity will become the economic, cultural, and political superpowers of the next century
Heinz Pagels

This is about the ideas behind this podcast. If the words "complex" and "complicated" mean, more or less, the same thing to you, you might find the scene-setting in this episode useful.

Episode Notes

For more information about complexity read my posts or these books:

  • Complexity by Michael Waldrop
  • The Quark and the Jaguar by Murray Gell-Mann

Transcript

This is a full transcript of the podcast

Welcome to the Clock and the Cat. A podcast of conversations about clocks and cats obviously, but crucially about complexity. The Clock and the Cat explores the emerging science of complexity ultimately to help you generate better ideas and make better decisions, whatever you’re involved with.

Why this podcast

First about me and why I’m doing this. I’ve worked in change management mostly to do with technology and mostly in UK government for most of my career. Mentoring, facilitating, communicating. That kind of thing. In that time I’ve become captured by the ideas of complexity. The lack of awareness of complexity and the mismanagement of it is the source of the Nile of problems that we face in the world today. There is huge benefit in understanding complexity better. And this podcast is my contribution - one conversation at a time - to promoting that understanding. So, let’s get on with it.

Introduction to Episode One

This is Episode one and it isn’t actually a conversation. It’s me setting the scene and explaining what clocks and cats have got to do with complexity.

About

Most of us use the word complexity to mean something hard, difficult to understand or really dead complicated. But I hope through this podcast to change the way you use the word Complexity. Forever. I’ll explain a trick for doing that later on. First to say complexity is a thing. There’s a science of it. Universities have departments of it. People have professorships in it. Second thing to say is that I’m not a professor of complexity. So don’t just rely on what I have to say. That said I am enthusiastic. And I’ve been on about it for years.

Bird flocking example of complexity

Complexity is a phenomenon in a system. The classic example is the flocking of birds. You’ve probably heard of the murmuration of starlings. And you’ll perhaps have seen video of them doing it. Thousands of them zooming around the sky in a great whirling dance. The birds all act independently. There’s no bird in charge, there’s no senior leadership team, there’s no health and safety officer, there’s nothing. Yet all seem to swoop around in a coordinated and actually quite amazing way. The swooping is what your complexity prof would call an emergent property of the system. One bird cannot murmur. It’s a property of the flock. It’s something that emerges from the interaction.

Why the Clock and the Cat

Right here’s the crucial idea . The prof would probably would also say that there’s a difference between something that is Complicated and something that is Complex. With all those words beginning with C you may have guessed what’s coming next. Imagine you’d never seen a clock before, if you were to open up the case look at the parts, count the teeth, see what’s connected to what and do a bit of head scratching you’d probably be able to work out how it might behave. You cannot do the same thing with a cat. Sorry if you are a cat lover but if you open up a cat look at the parts, count the teeth, see what’s connected to what there’s no way on earth, for example you could reasonably come to the conclusion that a cat might purr when you stroke it. Clock parts might be intricate and but they interact in a predetermined and constrained way - they’re machines, they don’t have much scope for deviation. Cats, on the other hand are organisms, they have a load of stuff going on. Lot’s of interactions between the various cat parts and lots of interactions between those parts and the cat’s environment. Clocks are complicated systems. Cats are complex systems.

Using the word "complex"

At the beginning I said I’d try to change the way you use the word complex. And here’s the trick I mentioned. When you’re talking about something you feel is complex try the replacing the word “complex” with the phrase “a complex system”

If you say something like… The market we are entering is complex. Saying instead, the market we are entering is a complex system. That does work. Bingo. On the other hand if you say. This book is complex. Saying this book is a complex system. That doesn’t work. Because books generally aren’t. Give it a go: replace the word “Complex with “a complex system” see what happens.

Why complexity's important

Crunch question. Why is complexity important? Complexity exists everywhere in the natural world. In the atmosphere. In the seas. In our brains. And crucially in organisations and in society. Organisations are subject to constraints like business processes and the contracts of employment. And society is constrained by customs and the law and so on. But both are fundamentally complex systems. When we want to change an organisation or some aspect of society we are changing a complex system. We are training a cat not fixing a clock. And, mixing my metaphors, here be sea monsters. Trying to making change by simply changing constraints is going to be troublesome.

Example - London Olympics and Universal Credit

Here’s an example. Let’s compare two projects. The 2012 Olympics and UK government’s Universal Credit project. If you aren’t familiar with it, Universal Credit has been a long running project to improve the UK’s welfare system that started in about 2011. The London Olympics was a huge success. Universal Credit not so much.

For me the Olympics was predominantly a clock type challenge. There was a good deal of certainty about what events would happen, what stadiums would be needed, who would participate and what the main challenges would be. And crucially much was known - there were lots of experts who had done Olympics before available to share what they knew. Clearly there was a huge amount of complicated scheduling and coordination needed to make it work and there was a lot could have gone wrong that didn’t but ultimately it was the sort of problem that yields to an analytic, programatic approach. It was analysed well, the were programmes run well and it worked. Universal Credit was different. Its success rested on changing human behaviour. Encouraging citizens to choose work over claiming benefit and there was substantial complicated IT needed to make it work. Analysis was done, the system was designed and the technology built. But it didn’t work very well. Not because it was done badly but because the approach was wrong. Universal Credit was a fundamentally a cat problem being treated in a clock way. I believe now that things have changed and progress is being made. This is not to say we should be abandoning programmatic approaches for all change projects, but we should be ready to see where complexity is having an effect and respond appropriately. This is the reason the artwork for this podcast. A cat looking from behind the mechanism of a clock. This podcast is about seeing the cat.

Conclusion

Now, if you’ll forgive the cheap pun. it’s time to wind things up with a quick 3 point summary… 1 Complexity is a thing 2 Clocks are complicated - Cats are complex. 3 Being able to spot the difference can save a lot of trouble. I haven’t said much about what complexity is like or what to do about it. If things work out this will emerge from the conversations in the future episodes and you’ll perhaps want learn more about it for yourself. If you are interested there are links in the notes with this episode.