A Complex System in Real Time

From the Ask Tom mailbag –

Say someone is working on implementing a new system. The person creates a plan, checks that it integrates with other plans, looks cross functionally, deals with all the stakeholders. Based on complexity, I would guess this Level of Work is Stratum IV, as it includes multiple paths with parallel processing, but the project deadline is 6 months. The thinking needs to be long term (2-5 years out), but the actual activity (project deadline) occurs in the short term (6 months).

To calibrate the Level of Work, do you use the actual project delivery dates (S-II) or the intent (S-IV)?

This is not a simple question? Several things to look at.

Let’s examine the word complexity. There are two kinds. The first kind of complexity is the complexity of detail. This complexity is the world of engineering, lots of complicated elements and moving parts. Detailed complexity is the stuff of software programs, managing millions of bits of data in real time. This complexity is important to acknowledge and consider but is NOT the complexity related to Time Span.

Complexity related to Time Span is that complexity created by the Uncertainty of the Future. The longer the target completion time, the more likely something will come in sideways to screw things up. The shorter the target completion time, the less likely something will come in sideways and screw things up.

Take a teenager driving an automobile. There is actual execution of multiple systems and sub-systems, integrated in the act of driving the car. There are mechanical systems operated with pedals and steering, a system of traffic signals and signs, a system of policies and guidelines, a system of traffic flow and variable speed, communication with other drivers via turn-signals and brake lights, a navigation system (GPS), a communication system (hands free, of course, and no texting), all seamlessly executed while sipping an early morning coffee and chomping a fine cinnamon bagel. Flawless integration which could be characterized by S-IV capability, and we would be wrong.

Many teenagers are highly competent at driving automobiles, playing video games, shooting, editing and posting to Facebook, all executing multiple systems and sub-systems, but that is just detail. That’s why Time Span becomes such a critical factor in understanding the Level of Work. It’s not the complexity of detail. It is the complexity of Uncertainty that defines the Level of Work.

In that thirty minute (target completion time) drive to work, it is unlikely that the mechanical systems will change their function. Gas pedals make the car go faster, brake pedals slow the car. Green lights turn yellow and then turn red (not necessarily in Switzerland). It is unlikely that, during the thirty minute commute, new traffic laws will be passed by your state legislature, that your turn signals will fail or that your GPS will take you to a false destination (well, not most of the time). Yes, it is a complicated set of multiple systems, but it is a very certain set of systems.

So, while we must acknowledge and consider the complexity of detail, it is not our only clue to the Level of Work. The strongest clues are related to the target completion time, or Time Span of the task.

So, now we are left to think about your target completion time. Your example is generic, and though you have given us much to think about, we need more data to determine whether the project deadline of 6 months is really the goal. If you truly believe that Stratum IV capability is required for success in this project, then I must assume the real “by when” of this goal is longer than you have stated. We need more data to see more clearly. Give us some more clues.

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