Managing Complexity: A Systems Approach
Managing Complexity: A Systems Approach

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Managing Complexity: A Systems Approach

6 Engaging with complexity

6.1 Articulating your appreciation of complexity

I have organized the material in this section so that you can follow the activity route shown in Figure 6.

This section is primarily concerned with what can be understood by the term complexity, and how to compare it with the ideas of difficulty and mess. To do this, you are first asked to notice your developing understanding of complexity in Section 6.1, and then to enter a deeper engagement with the distinction between difficulties and messes in Section 6.2. The substance of Section 6.3 is an exploration of the conceptual links between complexity and mess. It also alerts you to the many ways the term complexity is used, especially in relation to the new complexity sciences.

Figure 19
Figure 19 An activity-sequence diagram of the route through Section 6, which is concerned with engaging with complexity

The terms ‘complexity’ and ‘system’ each carry a rich set of meanings. As with complexity, the everyday senses of ‘system’ can get in the way of acquiring a rigorous understanding of its meanings in systems thinking and practice. Section 6.4 tackles this thorny issue and explores whether, and in what ways, a complex situation can be thought of as a complex system. Finally, the implications of adopting these distinctions are explored in Section 6.5. Your understanding of complexity should have developed quite a bit by the end of this section.

You can return here, and to Figure 19, as you work through Section 6. Doing so will help you maintain your sense of direction as you work through the ideas and arguments in this section.

Initially, I would like you to notice whether and how your appreciation of the phrase ‘managing complexity’ has changed since you started the course. As you work through Section 6 you will encounter a number of ways of thinking about complexity that may be new to you, so it becomes important to record your developing understanding. To help you with this, return to your notes on Activity 2 in Section 1.2. Now complete Activity 18. You should take no more than 20 minutes to complete this activity.

Activity 18

Timing: 0 hours 20 minutes

Articulate your initial appreciation of complexity.

You chose to do a course entitled ‘Managing complexity …’. Construct a spray diagram around the phrase ‘managing complexity’ by adding descriptions of the different meanings you gave to the phrase when you started the course. You will also need to draw on your answer to Activity 2 and, possibly, other activities in Sections 4–6. There may also be other relevant material in your notebook. If you are unable to articulate more than one or two meanings for managing complexity do not worry. Complete a spray diagram all the same, because I will be asking you to add to it as you go through this section.

Outline the experiences that led you to attribute the range of meanings to managing complexity shown in your spray diagram. For example, some of the meanings might be ‘I read book x’; ‘I work in this field where complexity means y’. Complete this by writing a paragraph or two.

Articulate changes in your appreciation of complexity

Add to your spray diagram any new meanings for managing complexity that have become apparent to you as you study the course. If you gain new insights into your earlier answers, add another set of branches to existing branches on your diagram. You can use the original diagram and add the additional information in a new colour.

Keep building up your spray diagram using different colours – or a scheme that suits you – as you work through this section of the course. As new meanings and insights become apparent, add them to your spray diagram. You may find at some time that you want to reorganize the diagram because new insights enable you to see ‘managing complexity’ in a different way. Add your diagram to your notebook.

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