Newspaper Column #9: Why do some problems defy, no, NOT change? – Part I

As it appeared in the Sunday Standard, Botswana on  Sunday Dec 16, 2012 edition.

Dynamic Complexity vs. Detail Complexity

We face problems daily.  And, we do not doubt our ability to deal with them.

Sometimes, this confidence can pull wool over our heads that we can deal even with the stubborn ones, in much the same way.  We would say to ourselves, just work harder.  We will overcome it.

Stubborn problems are issues that despite efforts to manage or contain it, while it first they may look like they are relenting, the results are short-lived (two-to-three years).  And, then it comes back again, this time harder and faster.

For example, in our efforts to survive arid conditions, we engage in pastoral farming.  Except, over time, such practices wipe out the greens (as when livestock consume grass) that would otherwise encourage rainfall.  In some countries, this means it gets only summer rainfall.  This causes conditions to become arid even further.

Notice, however, when droughts strike, they wipe out the livestock numbers.  This is an attempt by the system to do a correction, so as to recover itself.  The correction by the system is usually not that visible to us.  We now have a stubborn problem in our hands.

Can you tell, who comes across as more stubborn?

Can you tell, who comes across as more stubborn?

I am sure you can think of lots of other examples of stubborn problems.  Economic growth declines.  Lack of wage increases.  Divorce rates.  Rainfall levels and/or water tables (Nov/Dec 2012 series of this column).  New HIV/AIDs infection (coming in Jan 2013).  Unemployment (October 2012 series).  National school grades.  Performance in agriculture, manufacturing and retail sectors.  Economic diversification.  Crime.  Obesity.  Diabetes.  Road accidents.  Poaching.  Budget deficits.  Wars.  These are some, among others.

Firstly, the stubborn nature in such issues is usually not that easily visible at the onset, till we have had to face them for years on end, sometimes even decades.  It escapes our attention even for the best of us when tasked to manage them for the short-term (three-to-five years).

As legislatures, managers and enforcers we believe in the power of our word or our hands and feet to make a difference to such problems.  We become effective at doling out corrections each time the problem surfaces.

And when we fail to do so, it looks like project implementation is not taking off or the officer or the function is not performing well.  The enemy is out there.  Or, we may sometimes, shrug them off as ‘things that are beyond our borders and therefore our control’.

Where such problems exist, managing one time occurrences are easy.  Recurrence makes them tough.

Two kinds

However, to understand why such problems resist change, we need to first understand what causes their persistence.  To do so, it helps to appreciate that there are two kinds of complexity.  Detail and dynamic complexity.

Most organizations (and professions) are designed to deal with the first kind.  Detail complexity.  As it would be, when one “drills down”.  How many baskets did we sell last month?  What was our profit this year?  How many permits did we issue?  How many crimes were committed?

We are not quite organized to deal with the second.  What causes sales or profits to keep falling?  Or why does crime keep rising?

But first, what does the word complexity mean here?  The dictionary says “it consists of related parts” (as in composites) or “complicated” (as in a complex problem).

But it is perhaps the Latin word “complexus” from which this word derives its meaning that sets it apart for us.  It says “embracing, interwoven”.

To see the interwoven nature of a problem, it would require our minds to “zoom out” from the problem.  However, our years of drilling our minds down to details, makes the experience of letting go of the problem to see its dynamic nature, a new and rather anxious one for many of us.  It is understandable.

However, when we do not see the interwoven nature of these issues, it makes some of the most persistent issues of the day, well … remain stubborn.   Yet the solutions to some of our most pressing issues lie in learning to see and work with this interwoven nature.  There is no easy way out.  No shortcuts.  No magic pill.  Unfortunately.

First, let’s see what the interwoven nature of a problem would look like.

Interwoven nature of reality

We shall use an example.

Let’s go back to 2001.  9/11: The day when the two planes hit the World Trade Centre.  Notice what happened.  Overnight, airports around the world responded in exactly the same way.  First stunned.  And then a mad scramble to ‘shore its security’.  Yes?

Overnight, we saw passengers snake their way over two-hour waits to security screens.  No belt, shoe or stone were left unturned.  Do you remember those days?

One passenger underwent several levels of security screenings.  A typical airport would have thousands of passengers passing through its doors in a single day.  In a month or in a year, we would say well, that was a lot of work!

What would you call that kind of complexity?  This is what we refer to as ‘Detail Complexity’.

Most professions and performance management systems have their focus on this.

Systemic Thinking on the other hand, focusses its attention on ‘Dynamic Complexity’.

Let’s go back to the same context.

To find the dynamic complexity we start by asking, ‘why did we do what we did’?  Why did we build those screens?

Well we say it was important to do that so as to ‘weed the terrorists out’.

Yet, should we go across to “the enemy”, and ask the question, “From your view, who would you say, is the terrorist?”  What do you think would be their answer?  Did somebody whisper, “The other side”.  You bet!

So what do you notice?

Can you see what causes its recurrence?  Some might add, the recurrence has been happening since biblical times.  If so, will doing ‘corrections’ by one side acting on the other’ ever put a stop to the other side doing its corrections to us?   We know, that will not stop the problem.  And continuing to fight ‘the other side’, becomes very expensive.

But notice this dynamic complexity view becomes clearer to see when we zoom away from the bustle of managing the activities at the airports.

Why is it important to see this inter-relationship?  How then, do we handle such problems?  How do we handle Dynamic Complexities?

This will be the subject of the 2nd part of this article.

Ms Sheila Damodaran, an international strategy development consultant for national planning commissions welcomes comments at  For upcoming programmes, refer to


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