Towards Complexity

A mantra for directionality in leadership.

When at a loss as to what to decide or do, a simple thing to ask yourself is:

Does this help us coordinate at higher levels of complexity?

If ‘yes/maybe’ then: it’s probably a ‘good’ idea, and worth investing effort in. If ‘no/maybe not’ then: it might be worth reconsidering your directionality.

Photo by Marcus Rahm on Unsplash

Directionality is important. Pioneering (unprecedented) work requires directionality—because the specific destination itself is unknown.

Directionality is ‘the condition of being directional’. It is not the same as ‘direction’ (the action of directing)—though many might think it so. When pioneering, we can’t point at a specific destination, and direct people in an exacting manner.

Rather, it’s more like… flapping your hands in a general direction, with clear but vague and obtuse intentionality. Or: it’s like pointing to the gaps between stars. There’s seemingly nothing ‘there’ (yet)—but there is a ‘there’ there, amidst the constellation of stars.

But where do we orient our directionality towards? Well:—

The directionality of the universe is toward greater complexity.¹

The same can be said of society, culture, technology, work, relationships, science and art.² I’m not suggesting that there’s an intentionality here—that the universe is sentient and ‘consciously evolving’ or whatever. I’m also not ‘predicting’ a particular outcome, or suggesting a destination: that’s a fool’s game.

Rather: I’m just flapping my hands and suggesting a directionality—a vague compass bearing—that we are all moving toward greater complexity.

Therefore: whenever we are at a loss as to what to decide or do, we can do our best to orientate toward that which helps us coordinate at higher levels of complexity.

This hold true even if society collapses into tribalism or fascism. Just because those around us have regressed to less complex forms of society doesn’t mean the directionality of the universe has somehow magically reversed. Rather: it simply means we have slipped backward.

Why am I sharing this utterly obvious thing?

Because it’s easy to find ourselves overwhelmed by complexity (which renders this point non-obvious to some). We are all in over our heads (more than we could know). It’s quite reasonable to feel overwhelmed. I sure do.

And in such times, it’s oh so tempting to shy away from complexity (or to outright deny it) and regress to ‘simpler known things’. Such things make us feel more secure and more in control, which is understandable. This is further compounded by the fact that the ‘busyness’ that arises in the modern workforce leads us to feel time poor—and when we are time poor we do not have the headspace or bandwidth for complexity. We just want something that works, fast.

This then drives the spiral of ‘productivity’ that fuels the delusion of progress, which steers us away from meaningful progress. Rather than rising to meet the new and increasingly complex challenges of our times—we go the other way. Much to our detriment.

I’ve heard it said that leaders ought ‘make the complex simple’. There’s probably some truth in this, if we are kind. But I worry as to the directionality this suggests—it reeks of regression masked as prudence.

Instead, I’d propose that leaders ought to help others rise to meet the challenges of increasing complexity.

This is much harder to do, and thus will never be too popular a stance. But it’s the directionality I’d encourage people to orient towards.

  1. Or so it very much seems. This may be a function of entropy. From the first hydrogen atoms, through to more elements, complex molecules and single celled life—right through
  2. And nearly everything else. And no: this does not mean we are moving away from simplicity. Simplicity is not the opposite of complexity—despite what the dictionary might tell you. It’s a fractal companion, as I’ve (kinda) discussed previously.

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