For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple and wrong.” H.L. Mencken

At Wasafiri we are interested in how you make change happen in complex systems. So far we have yet to find any simple answers, but we have found a lot of complex ones. So for this play list, I have brought together an odd selection of people who argue that we need to embrace complexity, confusion and ambiguity in our thinking and give up any idea that we understand what is going on. For, if we’re going to find solutions to some of the complex problems we currently face – be they the productivity of agricultural systems across Africa, climate change or long term conflicts – then we will need to be able to think and work within the complexity we live.

Eric Berlow – Gives us a surprisingly simple (well sort of) summary of complexity and opportunities for drawing out important insights (and there are some reassuringly complex graphics)

In this talk Tim Harford, an economist and journalist, connects the dots between the second world war, Marmite, manufacturing detergent and a Japanese mathematician, to argue for the importance of trial and error and that we give up ‘having the answer’ (he also shows that economists aren’t quite as funny as they think they are!).


Moaning about PowerPoint must be one of the most shared human activities. This article argues that it is not just boredom that PowerPoint risks imposing on us but, potentially, it erodes our very ability to think! A little extreme perhaps, but still a call to avoid the overly rigid application of bullet points and logic of simple cause and effect.


And if you actually want something that gives an overview of (and a lot of links to more info on) complexity science, then here is a more serious article.


Part of the reason that complexity is so hard and simplicity so appealing, is to do with the way our brains work and the ways we like to think. Daniel Kahneman has won the Noble Prize for basically telling us that we don’t know what we are doing, or why we do it. In this short radio interview he shows how much context informs our thinking and the many ways we avoid ambiguity. Unfortunately, complexity is full of ambiguities.



3 replies
  1. Ian Randall
    Ian Randall says:

    Great blog Kate. I enjoyed the article from Collective Impact. It’s encouraging to sense a growing global community of practitioners around complexity and collaboration.

  2. Daniel
    Daniel says:

    From the guardian power point article, admittedly taken entirely out of context, I do love that Brigadier General McMaster, of the US military, said: “Some problems are not bullet-izable.” – how very true.

  3. Grif Griffiths
    Grif Griffiths says:

    Eric Berlow’s three minute talk highlights in a really nice visual way that the key to working with complexity is to stand back and look for patterns, and then work with those which are most open to influence. I like his comment that mountainous terrain can’t be changed much – although in a completely different context, this could be just the thing that one would want to change by digging tunnels or building bridges maybe. Something I didn’t hear in the talk was this – all the patterns are interconnected, entangled, and we can see that from the pictures. That means that working to influence the most accessible, open-to-influence patterns, will very likely affect the other patterns. This is both the light and the shadow of complexity – we might not see bad stuff coming, but we have more options that we might expect to influence the return of good stuff. 🙂

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