Complexity.

If ever a single individual understood this subject and its implications for late 20th-century mankind it was Peter Drucker. He wrote about this early and often, using varying nomenclature: consider, for example, his 1980 book, Managing in Turbulent Times. The material feels as current today as it did thirty years ago.

How appropriate, then, that the most recent of the annual conferences, The Global Peter Drucker Forum, held in his home town of Vienna, on November 14-15, 2013, took up this topic. You can find a rich set of post-conference materials here. They merit exploration. But if you’re pressed for time, the November 23rd edition of The Economist provides a concise summary. Here’s an excerpt or two:

The Vienna conference—the fifth in an annual series to celebrate Peter Drucker’s work—produced two starkly different solutions to the complexity problem…

The first is to recognise and accept that complexity is just a misnomer for a new sort of order. Don Tapscott, of “Wikinomics” fame, argued that the information revolution is replacing one kind of management (command-and-control) with another (based on self-organising networks). John Hagel of Deloitte talked about the growing disconnect between “linear institutions and the non-linear world that is developing around us”.

Organisations built for this new world may look complex and unwieldy but they have an inner logic and powers of self-organisation. Global networks such as Kiva, a crowdfunding website, and CrisisCommons, which musters tech volunteers to help out in disasters like the Philippines typhoon, can mobilise thousands of people with little top-down direction. Accelerate, a call-centre company, employs 20,000 people but has no call centres: they work from home. Such outfits suffer from complexity only when managers apply command-and-control techniques to them…

 …The second, rival solution to dealing with complexity is to impose simplicity. The bosses of Tupperware Brands and Tata Consultancy Services could hardly face more different challenges. Tupperware has 3m freelance salespeople, working everywhere from plush Austrian suburbs to Indian slums. TCS employs almost 300,000 people to solve complex technological problems. Rick Goings of Tupperware and Natarajan Chandrasekaran of TCS agreed that the only way to avoid being blinded by complexity is to concentrate on the few simple things that can give their businesses focus and their workers direction…

Unsurprisingly, the Drucker Forum focused on complexity in the world of business. But political leaders on every continent face a manifestly similar challenge when it comes to living on the real world… dealing with the Earth as a resource, a victim, and a threat, as illustrated in the previous LOTRW post. To draw from Earth’s resource store without causing undue environmental degradation, and building resilience to hazards all the while is truly… complex.

Here’s a forecast: world leaders will be applying a blend of both approaches to deal with this threefold, simultaneous set of tasks. They’ll be pushing problem-solving down to the local level (as is happening with NOAA’s Weather-Ready Nation initiative, for example). They’ll be allowing, even fostering local initiative at the expense of top-down, command-and-control approaches. And at that local level, they’ll be settling for short-term, approximate (read simple) approaches that are then frequently updated and tweaked in response to new knowledge and understanding – and changed circumstances.

Some additional perspective on how these approaches might work in this context is provided by my upcoming book, Living on the Real World: How Thinking and Acting Like Meteorologists Will Help Save the Planet, scheduled to be out in a few weeks. You should be seeing more about it on the AMS website soon; in the meantime, you can find a bit here.

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