But my problem is complex!

Aidan Ward
9 min readApr 12, 2021

How much can you read about any current issue without someone describing it as complex? Granted that there are technical definitions of what complex means, what does the term mean in everyday language? What is being conveyed when someone says “but this is complex”?

The acronym is clumsy and, I find, repulsive but here is VUCA:[1]

· V = Volatility: the nature and dynamics of change, and the nature and speed of change forces and change catalysts.

· U = Uncertainty: the lack of predictability, the prospects for surprise, and the sense of awareness and understanding of issues and events.

· C = Complexity: the multiplex of forces, the confounding of issues, no cause-and-effect chain and confusion that surrounds organization.

· A = Ambiguity: the haziness of reality, the potential for misreads, and the mixed meanings of conditions; cause-and-effect confusion.

- Wikipedia

From a technical perspective this is the raft of interconnected factors and effects that make “complexity” thorny.

The everyday language meaning when someone says “this is complex” is that they are telling me that my stated understanding fails to deal with the subtleties that they understand themselves. Or more crudely, the sharp focus I have brought to some issue is not going to get dealt with. Of course, it depends which side of the argument you are on, whether something appears simplistic and populist or fudged and obfuscated.

A clinical example

One of my none-too-sophisticated responses to the Covid pandemic is to take a Vitamin D supplement. The data I have seen show that the severity of the illness shows marked correlation with Vitamin D status. The other day I saw the results of a consolidated analysis of several surveys of the effect of Vitamin D supplementation: it showed no benefit.

This, however, is a matter of what the question was. It is a classic feature of real complexity that if you try to reduce things to a simple question or a yes/no proposition things will be less clear as a result. My rather simple understanding is that Vitamin D needs adequate levels of magnesium in the body to function, and that most people are deficient in magnesium: so of course Vitamin D supplementation might do no good. I also understand that the transport mechanisms of Vitamin D in the body involve fats that we are exhorted to remove from our diets.

If you want to do a trial of Vitamin D supplementation it matters whether the mechanisms that the body will use to derive benefit are able to function. The seemingly simple question “does this work” is not simple at all at the level at which it is asked, and anybody that relies on the results of the analysis will be further confused, and possibly made ill as a result.

All the above assumes that the analysis was designed to be edifying, to shine some light on the matter. But we cannot assume that for a moment given the political and financial shenanigans around the virus and mitigating actions. So, we need to take a view on the likely purposes of the authors of the survey and more importantly their funders.

The context in which the question is embedded is part of the meaning of the question, and any results returned from the analysis need to be re-embedded in the context for the meaning of the results to be seen. If for instance the analysis was part of an academic feud and designed to play a part in establishing or destroying the reputations of the protagonists, then the meaning of the results is nuanced by a related series of results in the feud. Or if the results are designed to deal with a theory that a pharmaceutic company finds financially inconvenient then the meaning is quite other. When people suggest staying with the science, they are denying these contextualisations. No less than Richard Dawkins was guilty of this recently in denying that science was a social construct.

Context and questions

My favourite example of a question that raises questions is from Rupert Sheldrake’s The Science Delusion. He has a plot of experimental determinations of the speed of light by date over the last century. It shows quite clearly that this absolute fundamental universal constant has changed systematically! Does anyone pay attention to variability over time of the fundamental constants? I think not.[2]

It is easy to take the piss out of economics as being almost entirely about dogma and politics and not having an empirical basis at all. A bunch of students at Manchester University resorted to refusing to be taught the lies and even to writing their own replacement textbook, which is very good. There is also a fantastic book documenting how economics changes around the world according to geography and culture. As it must because the way people interact economically is very different in different cultures. Which of course makes to US empire very keen to impose their self-serving dogma any way they can. Does anyone pay attention to how economics actually works as distinct from imposing broken models?

And of course, the massive propaganda campaign to frame cows as a principal cause of global warming is a classic. There are plenty of pseudo-scientific studies of simplistic questions that are part of the overall system, and they serve collectively to cloud the problem. The related propaganda is that in order to feed the world’s billions we must all eat more plants and less meat because that is a more efficient use of the available agricultural land. Which hides the fact that it is primarily US intensive agriculture which destroys the planet and impoverishes the world’s billions, leading directly to poor agricultural practices round the world.[3]

You could do a VUCA/TUNA analysis of any of these scenarios and see where complexity had not been respected. Or you could be lazy like me and just look at the lying institutions they are attached to.

Variety and regulators

It is important to know what people mean when they say “complexity”, and it is also important to know when their responses are irrational or unrealistic. If people are looking to exert some control in a complex situation, the Conant-Ashby theorem applies whether anyone likes it or not. The theorem says that every good regulator of a system is a model of that system. In everyday language: you need to know the mechanics of a complex situation if you are to have any real control.

If people say they are exerting control, then they are claiming to know how the system works. The easiest way to know whether this can possibly be true is to see how many responses they have, how many different levers they can pull. This is known as variety. Very often people who get worked up about control, their own or anyone else’s, have precious few responses. A bit shouty often. They may be able to demonstrate that their levers work, but that is only to say that for whatever reason the system is behaving at the time as a simple system, not as a complex one.[4]

As with classical economics, sometimes the response is to classify everything that does not fit the (rather simple) model as a side effect or an externality. The question then is how much of the behaviour of the system that is actually interesting and useful you have excluded from consideration. The UK government is currently banning protest, because if the government is already correct then protesters must be in the wrong. Of course, banning things is about as low variety as it is possible to get. It cannot work in any complex system.[5]

Nested systems

The least understood concept in systems is that an enclosed system, subsystem if you like, has different ways of being than the enclosing system. The way a particular subsystem such as rabbits-and-foxes behaves is not at all the way the wider ecosystem that includes them behaves. There are lots of old school organisational theorists and practitioners who believe that a whole organisation has to organise around a clear sense of purpose: this is deeply and tragically mistaken.

To use a positive example, I dealt with a charity that provided project workers to coach student religious society leaders on major university campus sites. The purpose of this coaching was to get enough real dialogue between different religious groups of students to head off the possibility of major misunderstandings and the threat of conflict. At the next level of system up, the university management itself, this work allowed realistic scenarios to be drawn up in which plans could be made and tested for the de-escalation of conflict when some adverse global or national happened. If student leaders try to work at the level of global events, trust will be undermined, not built up.

As you will have noticed, once something is politicised and polarised it is too late to build the foundations for de-escalation. Building trust and communication has to be done for its own sake, as was the case between communities in Northern Ireland. Different systems.

Simple solutions

A feature of complex systems in general is that a tiny change in the environment may produce a large change in the system (the apocryphal butterfly in the Amazon) or it may produce no change at all (because the system stabilises itself). People find this confusing and actually people’s beliefs about cause and effect and change are largely prior to observation and evidence.

John Adams describes four beliefs about system change. When slightly disturbed a system may:

· Return to its previous behaviour

· Return to its previous behaviour within certain limits, then change catastrophically

· Always change catastrophically

· Be essentially indifferent to the disturbance

In John Seddon’s methodology, systems have to be forced to change by simultaneous disturbances in different parts that reinforce the effect. James Wilk will show you how moving a coffee machine from one side of the room to the other will change a large organisation in some fundamental way. The vast majority of planned systems change does not work as intended.

If we look at this in slightly more abstract terms, we can distinguish between the understandable wish that some tweak with set a system on the “right” path, and an observation that some small change has improved a system is several seemingly disparate ways. The former “simplicity on this side of complexity” is common currency with snake oil. That latter “simplicity the other side of complexity” is our holy grail.

If a system is truly complex the meaning of that statement is likely to be that we cannot understand the operation of the system fully. W. Edwards Deming termed the making of changes to a system that is not fully understood “meddling” and recognised that the resultant system is more complex and less understood than it was previously. This is the standard situation. For example, when I was looking at the use of management data in the integration of primary and secondary care, I came across a successful team who ascribed what they had achieved to not having been reorganised in the last ten years.

The medical uses of diets than produce ketosis (“keto diets”) seem to expand and develop every day. Not just obesity and diabetes but many cancers, dementias, heart conditions, sleep disorders, and more seemingly unrelated conditions res pond positively. We might hypothesise that the human metabolism evolved to run in ketosis for some of the time. Then the disorders and diseases are collectively the result of misplaced advice, and sales and marketing, about what to eat. We note the elegant simplicity of simply restoring a body function and discovering that it in turn restores healthy functioning across a wide range of body behaviours.

This observed simplicity, where it is least expected, is a sign that some of a system’s complexity has been understood. What was previously a mass of trade-offs and counter-productive interventions collapses into a tolerably well understood direction of travel for interventions and observations and research.

My favourite moments as a consultant were always when a client said: “how could you possibly know that?”.

[1] For a fishy alternative, try TUNA, for Turbulent, Uncertain, Novel, and Ambiguous, as used by an Oxford University Executive Education programme

[2] The speed of light, of course, has not changed since 1983. Not because light itself has stabilized or because measurement has improved, etc, but because in 1983 the speed of light was defined in metres per second, and the metre defined in terms of how far light travels in a given number of seconds…

[3] Witness that the #2 global exporter of food is the Netherlands, a country whose entire area of 42 thousand square kilometres is 36 times smaller than just the arable land in the USA, the #1 exporter

[4] Seeming to behave, rather, since the effects of complexity have probably just been temporarily externalized. Long enough to proclaim victory and move on…

[5] In 1966, Nicolae Ceaușescu banned abortion and contraception in Romania. Twenty-three years later he was deposed by the generation that he had caused to be born.



Aidan Ward

Smallholder rapidly learning about the way the world works