The Edison multipolar dynamo

Complexity is a cost both in science and in business

The second law of thermodynamics states that every closed system grows disordered with time. This holds for all physical systems from the universe to your garden, your kitchen cabinets, and your work systems.

Human nature, however, likes order. We constantly strive to work in the opposite direction of this law and order the world around us so it can be more predictable.

The struggle to organize our systems is endless. There is no end game where all the bugs in all systems are fixed, everyone communicates perfectly, and all stakeholders are perfectly happy. All we can do is strive to get as close to perfection as possible.

The good news! Deliberate effort, the right culture, and some good old-fashioned project management can help. They can create transparency and reduce hidden variables.

Reduce hidden variables

Mini black swans, unpredictable disrupting events, are always lurking. So we have to be productively paranoid and search for early signs of trouble.

We need a method to deal with the limitations of an individual perspective. Why? Because there is always another perspective to be considered. To achieve the best, we need a mechanism that produces the optimal collective perspective. This mechanism can only be rooted in your organization’s culture.

If you have the right culture, information will flow better and more variables will be visible to more people. Hence, increasing the chance of proactive interpretations of the data.

The goal is to make the most informed decision by harnessing the subjectivity of perception.

Harness the Rashomon effect

What is the Rashomon effect?

“The Rashomon effect refers to an instance when the same event is described in significantly different (often contradictory) ways by different people who were involved.”

This is often used in movies by telling the story from the perspective of different characters.

The Rashomon effect is, in essence, subjectivity of perception. And when solving complex problems it is our friend. Think of your team or a group of cross-functional specialists working on a project as an algorithm of sorts. Each individual is a unique decision-maker. The optimal solution is there, you just have to help it surface.

Ultimately, diversity of thinkers and opinions leads to better decision-making. This leads to more cohesive solutions.

Choose algorithmic decision making rather than intuition

Everything is an algorithm. We have designed algorithms after our way of thinking.

The algorithm can be the collective thought process of your team. This collective thought process can be reinforced by codifying established stretches of it into formulas. These formulas can be refined over time to deliver a very high degree of accuracy. Formulas can be as simple and broad as a hiring quiz or as complicated and narrow as functions to analyze specific types of data.

Also think of open constructive arguments or team rumbles over issues as algorithmic decision making. A productive team discussion is, in essence, like a random forest algorithm – a lot of people giving their take on the problem. They are your decision trees.

Embrace conflict but navigate it with empathy and thoughtfulness. Bring disagreements to the surface and face them. Hiding them only creates gridlock. 

The adversary is the situation, not the person across from you. Honest, clear, constructive arguments will not only get you the best outcome but will create and reinforce your relationships. 

And relationships are foundational to algorithmic decision-making.

Build relationships 

Meaningful work is important but meaningful relationships are more important.

Productive rumbles are dependent on having meaningful relationships with participants. Connecting on the human level removes barriers and builds trust. It reduced the need for politics. It reduces the need to dance around an issue without being fully transparent about it. 

Think of your closest friend and how you talk when you meet. Chances are there is a flow, trust, and understanding even without speaking. Which leaves room to speak freely about anything. How did you get there? Either through the furnace of play or challenge or a combination of both.

The more touch points between individuals the closer the relationship.

Building relationships is fundamental to culture and culture is fundamental to reducing complexity.

Build your house of solid ground

Reducing hidden variables through listening and building relationships is not rocket science. But it is hard work and it takes time. You can’t force it anymore than you can force Google to quickly index a new website. You can nudge it like in the case of Google by creating a sitemap.

Create a map and be deliberate. Set the agenda. Provide direction and mentorship. Ask a lot of questions. Be proactive. Every interaction matters. Every interaction can get you closer to a better flow and seamless communication. 

What if there is no team? If you are working on a complex project solo. That is often part of the game.

Create your own fresh perspectives

When multiple perspectives are not available to you, say when you are working on an article or book in monk mode, create them.

You can do that by letting your work sit and looking at it with fresh eyes the next morning. If you can repeat this as many times as needed, you will often see that each time you let a day pass and come back, you will see your work with fresh eyes and be able to refine it. This is not always practical but can work if you are working on multiple patrolled projects with long deadlines. 

For more complex problems a longer pause may be needed.

Meditate on complex issues

Sometimes the best thing you can do is let go of the problem for a while.

Return to it when you have more headspace. Or you may find that the problem will return to you.

That can happen when you are running, eating a burger, or watching a movie. Don’t force it, let the thoughts flow freely. Often the solution will find you when you are not looking for it. It could be a parallel from something you hear or see, that has found its way to the surface. Think of it as a Dr. House eureka-moment to a complex medical conundrum.

Speaking of Dr. House, hospitals are amazing at reducing complexity. They meticulously organize and label everything so they can focus on medicine. Looking through hospital cabinets is inspiring when it comes to organization and consistency.

Be consistent and overdeliver

Reducing complexity often means doing things in the right order so you don’t have to expedite. Put first things first as Steven Covey puts it.

No matter what you do you have to be a good project manager. Everything in its essence is a project. There are three core aspects of this: communication, organization, and execution. To make all three work well, you have to be organized and consistent.

Good work habits are fundamental and consistency goes a long way. 

What else goes a long way:

  • Well-structured checklists
  • Check-ins and follow-ups
  • Focus and routine
  • Taking good notes
  • Folders and bookmarks
  • Thank you cards

Strive to deliver what is asked and then some more, even if the extra is just clarity of delivery or simply kindness.

Think how nice it is when the service in a restaurant is amazing. It’s often uplifting.

Last words

Be deliberate in reducing complexity. It is hard to get culture, relationships, and hidden variables theory right. But it is not impossible. Think in layers and take one step at a time. Consistency of alignment will follow. Efficiency comes from creativity and willingness to adapt.