Complexity theory says there are three stable states – simple, complicated, complex – and chaos. Assuming you’re not in chaos – in which case, just do something –  what type of problem are you facing: simple, complicated or complex? Answering that question will let you know the most appropriate type of response.

Simple is where the link between cause and effect is obvious. You deal with this by identifying best practice which will then always work; like creating a recipe for baking a cake. You deal with complicated by turning to an expert because by definition the link between cause and effect requires analysis in order to then choose which tools and approaches to apply. Going to the moon?You’ll be needing some rocket scientists, then. How, though, does one deal with complex: where cause and effect relationships aren’t apparent ahead of time? Even experts, if they’re honest, will admit to not being able to give you more than an educated guess about what to do.

I like a quote that helps me think about complexity: ‘no man ever steps in the same river twice’. You may be stepping from the same place on a riverbank onto the same place on the riverbed but your foot is going through different water acting in a different way every time. The quote is from Heraclitus. Actually, it’s Plato’s version of what Heraclitus had to say as his thoughts come to us from 2,500 years ago in fragments and snippets and no complete copy of his writing exists. This lends them a poetic quality and also leaves plenty of space for us to ponder their real meaning and use. Like when an artist refuses to provide a didactic interpretation of the meaning in her work, the withheld answer or obscure intent can make for deeper involvement, a richer more diverse application or relevance.


Heraclitus was known even amongst contemporaries with full access to his work as ‘the obscure’ and it may have been his central theses – that the universe is characterised by change – that held him back from being definitive and so characterised his thoughts as ‘riddling or paradoxical’. It may also be this very nature that keeps them relevant.

‘He believed in the unity of opposites, stating that “the path up and down are one and the same”, all existing entities being characterised by pairs of contrary properties.’


That sounds to me a lot like the way physicists talk about quantum mechanics – two and a half millennia ahead of the game.

If we are dealing with a complex situation then what is not helpful is ‘the answer’: the recipe, instructions, process or best practice about what exactly to do – because one can’t know in advance what exactly the situation will be. The bank and bed might be precisely calibrated but the river will be different. What is helpful, though, are ways of thinking and rules of thumb that allow for interpretation and guide behaviour dependent on the situation as it is being experienced.

‘Head down in front of goal,’

the footballer is coached.

‘Never force anything mechanical,’

the apprentice learns.

‘If the chain of command breaks down, head for high ground, keep moving, stay in touch,’

the soldier is trained.

‘Two wrongs don’t make a right,’

my mother told me.

Think of situation in your organisation where designing process in detail seems to be failing – no matter how many times you do it. Try to come up with some rules of thumb instead. How few can you get away with? How could you do an experiment to find out what happens if you give these to people and just let them get on with it?