Tag Archives: ambiguity

The Measure of Complexity

“Would you agree,” Pablo asked, “there are some simple problems that most people can easily solve?”

I nodded, “yes.”

“And, would agree that as problems become more complex, some people struggle?”

Again, I nodded, “yes.”

“So, how do we measure the complexity of any decision, the complexity of any problem?”

“I suppose,” I started, “it would have to do with the number of variables in the decision, difficult enough for those variables we know about, even more so for those variables we do not know about.”

“And, how would you define a variable, start with one we know about,” Pablo prompted.

“A variable would be something we anticipate, and we don’t know for sure which way it’s going to go,” I replied.

“Like the weather,” Pablo stated. “We anticipate it is going to be cloudy, but we don’t know for sure if it is going to rain.”

“Yes,” I said, not sure where Pablo was taking me.

“And, how do you know it’s cloudy?” he asked.

“I looked outside, no sunshine. Observable, visual evidence, I can see it.”

“But, you don’t know if it is going to rain? Do you take an umbrella?”

“I suppose I might. A minor annoyance if it doesn’t rain, and a handy thing to have if it does,” I assumed it was a smart response.

“So, in the face of uncertainty, you make a decision based on something that is observable right now. Would you make the same decision a half-hour from now?” Pablo baited.

“It looks pretty cloudy, I believe a half-hour from now, I would still take an umbrella,” I hedged my bet.

“So, in a short timespan, you believe you have enough evidence, in spite of the uncertainty, to make a decision to take an umbrella?”

I nodded, “yes.”

“How about a week from now?” Pablo’s eyes shifted and he grinned.

“Well, who knows, a week from now if it will even be cloudy, much less rain?” I asked.

“So, one week from now is less certain than a half hour from now?”

Again, I nodded, “yes.”

“Is it possible to measure the uncertainty of any decision using timespan?” Pablo stopped and rested.

Anything That Can Go Wrong

From the Ask Tom mailbag –

Question:
I am still struggling with the concept of time span. You say that time span indicates complexity. How?

Response:
Don’t overthink this fundamental concept. Life is about uncertainty. It is like the weather and the stock market. There is always uncertainty.

Combine this level of uncertainty with our intentions (goal directed behavior) and you observe the consternation of the ages. This is not a matter of going with the flow, but trying to get something done, achieve a goal, create an accomplishment. Elliott describes this as the “time span of intention.”

In spite of our best intentions, the longer it takes to achieve the goal, the more time life has to be unpredictable. The shorter time it takes to achieve the goal, the less time life has to happen, the less opportunity for some circumstance to come in sideways and blow everything up.

Time span is about contingencies. Time span becomes a calibration tool that allows us to precisely measure the impact of uncertainty in our best laid plans.

Step back and remember Murphy’s Law. Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong. How long do we give Murphy to play?

Dotted Lines Create Ambiguity

“Each department manager turned toward internal efficiency because you told them to. No waste, no scrap, predictable output,” I said. “But now you have multiple departments, multiple systems and subsystems. You have silos. Silos that compete. Silos that compete on budget. They compete for resources. They compete for your managerial attention. Most companies stay stuck here. It’s your move.”

Regina was thinking. Her eyes looked down, her vision went inside. “I am the problem,” she observed. “I told them to be this way?”

“You are the problem,” I agreed. “And you are the solution. Your departments are perfectly capable of creating those internal efficiencies, but those internal efficiencies have to be optimized. Work goes sideways through the organization. It starts with marketing, then goes to sales, then to contracting, then to operations, then to warranty, looping into R&D. Work gets handed off from one department to another.”

“So, I can’t just put all the managers in a room and tell them to figure it out?” she guessed.

“Your role is one of integration,” I nodded.

“Like all the dotted lines on the org chart?” Regina offered.

“Your dotted lines on the org chart have your best intentions. Intuitively you understand the horizontal cross-functional working relationships, that’s why you drew the dotted lines. But dotted lines create ambiguity. No one understands the specific accountability and the limited authority that goes with those dotted lines. So people make stuff up. And that’s where the trouble begins.”

The Uncertainty of the Future

“You look absorbed in something,” I observed.

Abbe looked up from her desk. “Yes, I have this project coming up. Never worked on a project like this before. Don’t know anyone who has worked on a project like this before. Risky. Not devastating risk, but this project could go sideways fast.”

“And?” I asked.

“I am trying to think about projects we have completed in the past that could help me figure out this new project,” she replied.

“Looking for patterns in past projects will only help you so much. It helps you understand the past. But we live, going forward into the future. And we cannot predict the future. There is uncertainty and ambiguity. Planning helps, but even the best plan rarely survives its train-wreck with reality. We cannot control the future. The best we can do is be clear about our intentions. And prepare ourselves for that uncertainty.”