Bonfire of the Certainties: Strategies for a Messy World

By Alistair Brett

What connects 2016 to 1497? In 1497 the Dominican priest Girolamo Savonarola urged his followers to have a bonfire of possessions which might tempt them to sin;A Bonfire of the Vanities” as these events came to be called. During 2016, a year of surprises from Brexit to the US Presidential election, it was 3-ring binders – binders containing bulky strategic plans built around predictions and assumptions that turned out to be false – that were burning (virtual bonfires this time of course): “A Bonfire of the Certainties.”

Or was 2016 so surprising?

Novelist Paul Auster in a recent Financial Times interview expressed his opinion that the “mechanics of reality are far stranger than we think, that unexpected things are happening all the time and that we ought to embrace that and try to understand the world as an unstable, unpredictable place, not insist that it’s an exception every time we see it happen. This is how things work.”

For most of us life is a mix of predictable and unpredictable events. We walk down the street keeping away from traffic, passing familiar landmarks, purchasing from stores open at predictable hours. For some among us working hours are predictable, as is sunrise each morning. Within this certain world lurks unpredictability; a car swerves and dangerously mounts the sidewalk, we lose our job, or a new unexpected opportunity arises. For those living in fragile conditions such as poverty or conflict this balance of predictable and unpredictable events is tipped towards one extreme.

How are we to describe such an environment? No, not describe it – how do we analyze it, and why is this important?

This will be the subject of this blog series, which will focus on how to enhance innovation in complex environments. Ideas and models will be presented, not all of which may turn out to be correct (as someone once noted: all models are wrong, but some are useful). This blog will invite you to look into evidence for how strategies may be created for complex, dynamic, adaptive, systems where uncertainty and unpredictability reign.

First, a small but essential detour. A recent documentary film described the Airbus A380 with its approximately 4 million parts as “the world’s most complex aircraft.” If it is, then I will never board it. It may indeed be the most complicated aircraft. A critical difference is that complicated systems such as the passenger aircraft can be fully modeled, that is, we can deduce the behavior of the whole aircraft from its parts, whereas complex systems are inherently resistant to modeling; a study of the parts may not tell us how the whole will behave. I think we prefer an aircraft’s behavior to be predictable from the functioning of its parts.

Complicated systems will not encourage much innovation; complex systems will.

It’s unfortunate that “complex” used in the scientific and philosophical sense is the word used colloquially, if incorrectly, by many of us to describe something which we find difficult to understand or which seems highly intricate or complicated. Many of us get this distinction between complex and complicated wrong in our everyday speech.

The Latin origin of “complex” suggests that a complex system has many components that are interconnected, although with different strengths and degrees of relevance, and difficult to separate. In spite of this interconnectivity it is possible, to a certain degree, to “partially decompose” a complex system into individual building blocks of complex systems. This was demonstrated in 1962 by Herbert A. Simon in a classic work The Architecture of Complexity. Simon went on to receive the 1978 Nobel Prize in Economics.

Understanding the complex system with which you are engaging, along with the inevitability of instability in the world, will help avoid future Bonfires of the Certainties.

Wondering where to start to solve problems and grow a culture of innovation?
Check out how we apply complexity science to Innovation Leadership, Innovation Strategy and Innovation Culture.