Dealing with Complexity and Chaos

27 June 2010

I was thinking about System Thinking and how very few organisations that I have worked with have made use of this approach and associated System Thing tool such as iThink.

The same applies to Enterprise Architecture modelling and associated EA tools.

There is often a cry from some people that the resulting models are too complex.

‘Can’t I simplify it ‘ they cry. ‘It’s too difficult to understand’.

In one case the diagram in question was a relatively straightforward Application Architecture diagram showing 180+ Applications and a simplified view of the interfaces between them. At the time it made me smile since I’d previously worked with an Application Landscape that contained over 3000 applications!

However there is a real problem here of a general resistance to the use of Enterprise Architecture modelling (and also of the use of system thinking) revealing the underlying complexity of systems, and a wider problem of aversion to getting to grips with complexity.

Many people I think are afraid of complexity in general and are afraid of any model that reveals the underlying complexity. These people would like the world to be simple and straightforward (perhaps due to their limited education?).

It’s important to understand that the world is not at all simple, and simplistic solutions will not be sufficient for all problems.

The application of the right modelling tools, expertise and approaches will need to vary depending on the type of problem that needs to be solved.

The Cynefin model is useful for helping people understanding that different approaches are needed for different classes of problem.

See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cynefin

The Cynefin framework defines five context spaces: Simple, Complicated, Complex, Chaotic and Disorder.

For problems that fall into the Simple context space, the relationship between cause and effect is obvious to all, and the approach is to Sense – Categorise – Respond and we can apply best practice.

For problems that fall into the Complicated context space, the relationship between cause and effect requires analysis & investigation with good models and/or the application of expert knowledge, and the approach is to Sense – Analyze – Respond and we can apply good practice.

For problems that fall into the Complex context space, the relationship between cause and effect can not be instantly perceived without testing and simulation, including using System Thinking / System Dynamics modelling and simulation approaches. The approach to use is to Probe – Sense – Respond and look for emergent meaning.

For problems in the Chaotic context space, there is no obvious or intuitive relationship between cause and effect at systems level, the approach is usually known as JFDI (Just Effing Do It) and consists of trying something out and seeing what the hell happens – an Act – Sense – Respond approach.

The Disorder context space is the state of not knowing what the problem is in the first place and doing nothing and hoping for the best.

Unfortunately ‘Hope is not a Strategy’.

Complex models can only be made as simple as possible but no simpler. Ultimately you’ll have to live with complexity.

Knowing when to use the right modelling tool to manage complexity is the best strategy.

Fools ignore complexity. Pragmatists suffer it. Some can avoid it. Geniuses handle it.

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2 Responses to “Dealing with Complexity and Chaos”


  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Kris Meukens and TheBusinessArchitect, The Tech Gang. The Tech Gang said: #BusArch #News Dealing with Complexity and Chaos « on Enterprise Architecture: Knowing when to use the right model… http://bit.ly/935wkA […]


  2. Nice thought Adrian. 100% there.


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