On Responding to Complexity

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BLUF Issues – regardless of scale – often acquire similar responses when the systems are complex. This post looks at components of complex system issue response and reasoning behind it.


My daughter called me late on the 4 of July as I was busy with a blowtorch and pyrotechnics. Her car wouldn’t start. She’d an edge of panic, as we’d just bought the car. Her first. Her hosts for the evening (one being a mechanic) told her it was likely the water pump (by which I’m guessing she meant fuel), the starter, or the alternator, and that she needed to get it towed to a nearby service centre.

I said I’d take a look at it first.

Not because I’m a mechanic (though owning my XJR or worse, the S-Type, has given me deeper appreciation for tracing what goes wrong through a system). I have a fairly basic understanding of the systems involved. I do pay attention and I know how to use Google, so I wanted to look first.

I had it running in a day. There was nothing wrong with it. The only problem was the key setting broke, and the key without didn’t allow a transponder to log into the anti-theft/ tamper system.

Modern cars are complex systems. The experience made me think.

  1. Complexity in systems reduces consumer autonomy. Where older cars have simpler systems to understand and work with, recent vehicles are less so. Sensors and CPUs make the adjustments previously made by physical engagement with engine components. This limits the possibility for average consumers to kick the faulty component and have it re-engage.
  2. People naturally compartmentalise issues, not seeing broader context. The gent who was offering my daughter advice was indeed a mechanic by trade, knowing the fundamental systems that would cause the car to malfunction in the ways described. He thought of the wrong systems, assuming catastrophe and relaying it as such. Knowledge can be useful, but also naturally gives one buckets to put issues into and the buckets may or may not be appropriate in dealing with issues.
  3. Depth of knowledge of systems often stops at Google. I noticed the advice given was the same as the top search results on Google. We may know (or think we know) the answer, but we still confirm with Google. The desire to not be wrong seems to tie in with the relative use of SEO based validation.
  4. Attention spans are cursory. Blame it on memes and the like, we have much shortened attention, especially when we think we’ve sorted the issue. We will also cling to the validated fifteen (likely only five) seconds of attention offered to the issue.
  5. Efforts are reduced without skin in the game. To be fair to the host’s miscalculation of the issue, he never actually stepped outside to look at the car. Courtesy aside (along with my commentary on being a good host), it wasn’t his daughter, his car, or his problem – and he treated it accordingly. Unless someone has personal investment, it is easier to extend minimal effort if any.

Applying the concept to the growing complexity of organisations and the region/ sector ecosystems, one finds much the same to be true. Large organisations, markets, regions are complex systems. Often within a large enterprise we find smaller organisations behaving similarly.

If an issue:

  • Extends beyond a division’s perceived reach or responsibility,
  • Is either bucketed without further enquiry or assumed out of scope to be characterised,
  • Without validatable SEO solutions,
  • Not part of an organisation’s remit,

then the organisation likely will defer by default to “it’s not my problem” (liability avoidance culture at its finest).

If they are feeling benevolent, they might point out who could, or would, be responsible.

If no one is responsible – either it exceeds the enterprise’s scope or there isn’t a division covering the issue at an enterprise level – then the issue will likely stop there, unanswered, unaddressed, unresolved.

When it comes to cyber, complexity of challenges apart, the attitude of not systematically working through a problem or simply passing the buck with “it’s not my problem” is part of why we are losing.

The question is: who will take up the banner?


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