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Systems thinking helps understand dynamic complexity

Improving Systems and Habits

Scott Miker is the author of several books that describe how to use systems and habits to improve.  This free blog provides articles that to help understand the principles related to building systems.  

Systems thinking helps understand dynamic complexity

Scott Miker

Peter Senge talks about a concept called dynamic complexity in his book, The Fifth Discipline.  He says that the world is becoming more and more complex every day.

Most of understand this from the standpoint of detail complexity.  This is the complexity around the specifics of an issue and around the details.

But dynamic complexity is different.  Senge states, “When the same action has dramatically different effects in the short run and long run, there is dynamic complexity.”

Formerly I worked for a company overseeing various websites.  One situation that seemed to recur was the idea of the quick fix.

It would usually start out with a problem being discovered on the site.  Soon we would do research and come up with a root cause analysis.  It was usually something deeply ingrained in the site.

Because of the nature of the problem, we usually had two ways to solve the problem.  We could spend the hours doing it correctly and halting several other projects in order to solve this problem so it doesn’t come up again in the future, or we could do a quick Band-Aide fix.  The Band-Aid fix usually solved this one problem but didn’t do anything for similar problems in the future.

Over time, doing these band aide fixes resulted in the code being very complex and messy.  When we wanted to update a page we had to try and remember all of the one-off scenarios that we had created in the past from these Band-Aide fixes.  Not only did this make a tough assignment for our developers, but our quality control people hated to have to test so many scenarios, often finding errors and bugs with one specific fix that was done. 

The Band-Aide fix is an example of missing the dynamic complexity.  The easy solution in the short run is a horrible solution in the long run. 

Thinking through dynamic complexity is important to fully understand the consequences of our actions.  Many times it shows us that the quick fix isn’t that great and the longer, slower fix might be more difficult now but will be much better in the long run.

But we all do this from time to time.  We feel stressed about a work assignment and decide to relax with a beer or glass of wine rather than work through the tough assignment.  It seems like a great way to get away from the stress we feel but in the long run means that the problem is just waiting for us and will return once we are done trying to get away from the problem. 

I’ve done this many times.  Sometimes instead of cleaning the house, I just decide to go for a drive or go out to eat.  It temporarily gets me past the chores that I have to do but doesn’t get them completed.  As soon as I get home I realize all the stress around the housework returns. 

A better approach would have been to understand the dynamic complexity and then tackle the chores by doing them.  Times when I do this, I ultimately feel better after I finish them than I do when I am trying to escape from them.  In the long run the solution is much different than the short run (dynamic complexity). 

Next time you are faced with a problem, take a moment to think through the problem and the potential solutions with an eye for dynamic complexity.  Look for ways in which the solution might look completely different in the long run versus the short run.  Then make your decision based on the full picture (full system) rather than just a snapshot.  It doesn’t always mean you opt for the long-term solution, it just means that understand the full system and make a choice knowing the short-term effects and long-term effects.