How humans make problems more complex

Humans make problems complex.

Humans have a tendency to increase the interconnectedness of systems, such as through the creation of complex networks and systems of systems. This interconnectedness can lead to increased complexity, as elements within the system influence one another and create feedback loops.

Humans can add new elements to existing systems, such as new technologies or processes, which can increase the complexity of the system. This is especially true when new elements are added without a full understanding of how they will interact with other elements within the system.

Humans can create hierarchical structures within systems, where elements at higher levels control and influence elements at lower levels. This can increase the complexity of the system, as it makes it difficult to understand the behavior of the system as a whole and the relationships between elements within the system. Real organizations are full of people who do not want one thing or operate on a singular purpose. Instead they have what Richard Rumelt, professor emeritus UCLA, calls “bundles of ambitions.” Inevitably, some of the things in the bundle conflict and it’s not possible to satisfy them all.

Humans can introduce uncertainty into systems through their actions and decisions, such as by changing regulations, policies, or market conditions. This uncertainty can make it difficult to predict the behavior of the system, leading to increased complexity. Rumelt estimates that 30% of all strategic challenges lie within the organization or process. That is, the real challenge is with the people and the choices they make as part of the dynamic system of an organization.

Humans can make systems complex by ignoring the potential consequences of their actions, such as by implementing policies or technologies without fully understanding their long-term impacts. This can lead to unintended consequences, such as negative effects on the environment or society, that increase the complexity of the system.

Humans don’t like uncertainty or ambiguity because we equate it with danger. We can respond to uncertainty by oversimplifying or making a simple choice that creates more uncertainty over the long term. Rumelt laments the failure of leaders to deal with uncertainty, that many strategies declare (decide) a controllable endpoint (goal) without considered analysis of the possibilities.

The problem with “decisions masquerading as goals” is that resources that have been misallocated in formal processes have to be reallocated informally, which begets more complexity.

Complex problems make people anxious so they make more errors. They are more stressed and have less fun. We probably all know the feeling of being lost in a problem. We might feel embarrassed that we don’t know the answer and frustrated about our ability to figure it out. We might not know what questions to ask or how to begin. We might feel very alone with the problem, overwhelmed and want it to just go away.

Complex problems are harder to solve because they are harder to cope with. But persistence for solving the problem and developing a tolerance, even a love, of ambiguity is a skill that can be learned.