Embrace complexity to navigate the complex world

This article was subsequently published in Kantar’s BrandZ 2019 report. You can access it here.

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“The destiny of our species is shaped by the imperatives of survival on six distinct time scales. To survive means to compete successfully on all six time scales.”

– Freeman Dyson, From Eros to Gaia, NY, Pantheon, 1992

Unprecedented times

Certain insights come to fore when we retreat from the immediate and allow ourselves to see beyond ourselves – beyond the scale of an individual. In this quote, Freeman Dyson exhorts us to look at humanity from six different scales – as an individual, as a family, as a tribe/ nation, as a culture, as a species and finally as the web of life on our planet. As we zoom out, we see humanity engaging with different kinds of threats and opportunities that play out over different time horizons – from momentary to years, to millennia to eons.

Me, you and every individual before us, is part of a celestial tapestry that has weathered near extinction events, loss of entire cultures, fall of kingdoms, wars and death. Humanity has thus far, survived. Can we go on though?

Humanity survived for a million years when it couldn’t affect nature globally, where cultures lasted for millennia and remained relatively isolated, where technologies took centuries to propagate.

But, Climate Change is threatening the ‘web of life’ as you read this. Culture is being flattened with globalization. The increasing complexity of modern economy is making livelihoods volatile.

These are unprecedented times.

The Anthropocene has been an era of accelerated change brought upon by humankind. The changes are at all levels and they are multiplying.

What brought us here, will tear us apart if it continues unabated. We need a fundamentally new approach to navigate ahead. Cybernetics, a transdisciplinary approach to study complex systems, perhaps has a valuable perspective that businesses can learn from.

Economy as a complex system

Businesses do not operate in isolation. They are affected by technological changes, environmental changes, demographic changes, sociological changes and so on. There are far too many interdependent & independent variables at play here.

As such, the first thing to recognize here is that predicting these changes and preparing for them is near impossible. There goes your silver bullet.

Secondly, every action has a reaction, which in turn has a reaction, precipitating in a feedback loop. In our case, the feedback loops manifest as regulations, cultural movements such as the current swing towards nationalism across the world, refugee crisis, drop in fertility rates and so on. If you look at these trends from a ‘feedback loop’ perspective, it might help in anticipating probabilities of change much better than most current linear models (though still with high uncertainty).  

Thirdly, realise that businesses have a role to play in most of these issues. We can’t remain ignorant of our role in climate change for instance. Our ignorance and inaction will be at our peril. Businesses with long term view of their survival should work with governments to reign in businesses with short term view which might be polluting the planet, increasing inequality or threatening social order.

Lastly, realise that the rate of change especially with technological advancement will only accelerate. For a ‘constant change paradigm’, the organizational structure of businesses must fundamentally change to survive and thrive. Linear hierarchies can’t respond quickly enough. To respond rapidly, the organizational structure must allow for ‘emergence’. Emergence is the ability of a collective to do something that individuals couldn’t do on their own. Ants exhibit it when they navigate challenges to their colony or to source food, without a central decision-making body. They do so, by following a few simple principles encoded in their genes that guide their behaviour around certain stimuli.

There’s a lesson here. Organisations that institute simple principles which empower autonomous behaviours among its workforce can respond to new threats and challenges much more effectively. This is already happening to an extent with online tools that reduce much of the friction that defined business in 20th century – in raising capital (with Kickstarter), in communicating (with Slack/Whatsapp), in manufacturing (with 3d printers, Shenzhen supply chain) and so on. With on-demand manufacturing in Shenzhen, on-demand access to cloud with AWS, on-demand access to capital on Kickstarter/ VC, on-demand access to talent through gig-economy, anyone can respond to an emergent threat/ opportunity now and start an organisation.

It’s a brave new world out there. To navigate changes in these rapid waters, you will be required to take a few brave decision and pivot towards emergent organization, environmental consciousness and appreciation of the complex reality of the world. Thankfully, it has never been easier to pivot than now. Embrace the complexity, and pivot.

Summation

  1. It’s time to wake up and see businesses as part of the broader fabric of humanity.
  2. Realise that we live in an increasingly complex world.
  3. Which requires us to acknowledge our limits in anticipating future.
  4. But it does not mean we should not try. Embrace complexity and allow for uncertainty. Use the ‘feedback loop’ perspective to gain competitive edge over others who still use linear/ simplistic projections to define their business goals.
  5. Realise that we can remain ignorant about our role in climate change, at our own peril.
  6. Evolve from hierarchical structure to emergent organizational structure.

Enamored with ‘simplicity’

Simplicity is good. A Simple message is more readily understood, more readily spread. So I am all for the final expression of ideas being simple – the tag line, the copy.. simpler the better, generally.

Even if we look under the hood, the thinking behind the ad, the strategy – simplicity often helps prioritise, helps clarify. The search for simplicity helps us frame our questions better, zero-in on key questions quicker.

However, simplicity has also become an excuse for the ignorant not to learn. Simplicity has become a tool that helps older generation remain in denial. The simplicity mantra has allowed the advertising industry leadership to remain complacent in the face of existential crisis.

Life is not simple. Understanding life is not simple. To arrive at a simple clarity, one typically has to go through fairly complex experiences and a conscious effort to engage with that complexity. Engaging with complexity to unearth meaning is the bedrock of human evolution. We are evolutionary deadwood if we don’t engage with emerging complexities and strive for relevance in the new world.

Here’s a few anecdotes of what I want to convey –

A client wanted to create a ‘platform for X’: a very promising and untapped area. But they had obviously not thought through yet. I thought of Scott Galloway’s insight that lists 10 factors that affect chances of success for a global platform company. The fact is, even this list of 10 factors would be considered over simplification by wiser folks. But it could help us help the client see the obvious areas of improvement in their business plan. Climbing up the value chain for us – from simply brand identity to strategy consultancy.

But unfortunately, the agency leadership did not understand and did not have the time to understand the basics of the new economy. They didn’t want to dabble into things they don’t understand, fair enough. But that means sidestepping a fair amount of opportunities.

Their desire for simplicity meant tremendous opportunity costs.

Second anecdote –
This was a typical NGO project related to changing certain health habits. Creative team jumps onto a morbid ‘shock treatment’ idea. Why not do something like ‘dumb ways to die’? The death part, not the fun happy jingle part. Never mind the context.

Fear works! they pronounce.
I show research saying that it is not very helpful. Some people rally, but a vast majority of TG would perceive it as an attack on their identity and pull up their defenses, strengthening their bad habits. It is a fairly well documented effect – the backfire effect. But sharing the knowledge of backfire effect, backfired. Creatives pulled up their defenses and held their morbid deathly idea even tighter to their bosoms.

They responded by ridiculing the research – there are so many conflicting researches. No point in listening to it. We ‘know’ fear works, they pronounced.

Fear to engage with unknown psychological complexities held them back from doing what could have been amazing work.

I feel that people who analyse ads often put far more thought than the people who make those ads. Because it is their job to deconstruct complexities with the first group. And to simplify and elicit a reaction for the latter group.

How do you learn if you don’t engage with the complex?
We need ruminations over complex matters to achieve the essential simplicity.

The ones who don’t engage their grey cells and their heart with real complexities, won’t find the elegant voice of truth that shapes great creative work.