Ajinkya Mukund Pawar
Strategic Planning Director
Embrace complexity to navigate the complex world
“The destiny of our species is shaped by the imperatives of survival on six distinct time scales. To survive means to compete successfully on all six time scales.”
– Freeman Dyson, From Eros to Gaia, NY, Pantheon, 1992
Certain insights come to the fore when we retreat from the immediate and allow ourselves to see beyond ourselves – beyond the scale of any one individual. In the above quote, Freeman Dyson exhorts us to look at humanity from six different scales – as an individual, as a family, as a tribe or nation, as a culture, as a species, and finally as the web of life on our planet. As we zoom out, we see humanity engaging with different kinds of threats and opportunities that play out over different time horizons – from momentary to years, and onward to millennia to eons.
Me, you, and every individual before us is part of a celestial tapestry that has weathered near extinction events, loss of entire cultures, the fall of kingdoms, wars, and death. Humanity has, thus far, survived. Can we go on, though?
Humanity survived for a million years when it couldn’t affect nature globally, when cultures lasted for millennia and remained relatively isolated, and when technologies took centuries to propagate.
But today climate change is threatening the “web of life” as you read this. Culture is being flattened by globalization. The increasing complexity of modern economy is making livelihoods volatile.
These are unprecedented times.
The Anthropocene has been an era of accelerated change brought on by humankind. The changes are at all levels, and they are multiplying.
What brought us here will tear us apart if current trends continue unabated. We need a fundamentally new approach to navigate ahead. Cybernetics, a cross-disciplinary approach to studying complex systems, perhaps has a valuable perspective that businesses can learn from.
Economy as a complex system
Businesses do not operate in isolation. They are affected by technological changes, environmental changes, demographic changes, sociological changes, and so on. There are far too many interdependent & independent variables at play here.
As such, the first thing to recognize here is that predicting these changes and preparing for them is near impossible. There goes your silver bullet.
Secondly, every action has a reaction, which in turn has a reaction, resulting in a feedback loop. In our case, the feedback loops manifest as regulations, cultural movements (such as the current swing towards nationalism across the world), refugee crises, drops in fertility rates, and so on. If you look at these trends from a “feedback loop” perspective, it might help in anticipating probabilities of change much better than most current linear models (though still with high uncertainty).
Thirdly, realize that businesses have a role to play in most of these issues. We can’t remain ignorant of our role in climate change, for instance. Our ignorance and inaction will be at our own peril. Businesses with long-term views of their survival should work with governments to rein in businesses with short-term views that might be polluting the planet, increasing inequality, or threatening social order.
Lastly, realize that the rate of change, especially with technological advancement, will only accelerate. For a “constant change paradigm,” the organizational structure of businesses must fundamentally change to survive and thrive. Linear hierarchies can’t respond quickly enough. To respond rapidly, the organizational structure must allow for “emergence.” Emergence is the ability of collectives to do something that individuals couldn’t do on their own. Ants exhibit it when they navigate challenges to their colony or to source food without a central decision-making body. They do so by following a few simple principles encoded in their genes that guide their behavior around certain stimuli.
There’s a lesson here. Organizations that institute simple principles to empower autonomous behaviors among their workforces can respond to new threats and challenges much more effectively. This is already happening to an extent with online tools that reduce much of the friction that defined business in 20th century – in raising capital (with Kickstarter), in communicating (with Slack/WhatsApp), in manufacturing (with 3D printers and global supply chains), and so on. With on-demand manufacturing in Shenzhen, on-demand access to the cloud with AWS, on-demand access to capital on Kickstarter and with the growing VC community, and on-demand access to talent through the gig economy, anyone can respond to an emergent threat or opportunity and start an organization.
It’s a brave new world out there. To navigate changes in these rapid waters, you will be required to make a few brave decisions and reorient toward emergent organization, environmental consciousness, and appreciation of the complex reality of the world. Thankfully, it has never been easier to pivot than now. Embrace the complexity, and pivot.
- It’s time to wake up and see businesses as part of the broader fabric of humanity.
- Realize that we live in an increasingly complex world.
- Which requires us to acknowledge our limits in anticipating future.
- But it does not mean we should not try. Embrace complexity and allow for uncertainty. Use the “feedback loop” perspective to gain competitive edge over others who still use linear, simplistic projections to define their business goals.
- Realize that we remain ignorant about our role in climate change at our own peril.
- Evolve from hierarchical structure to emergent organizational structure.