Complexity is a by-product of success.
Consider all the living things in a forest, from the trees, to the fungi, to the insects, to the birds. There is an incredible diversity within each group and together they form a complex ecosystem. Each and every species that thrives in that environment is there precisely because it is successful.
“Success” may mean something different given various contexts. Here, I’m thinking of success as an example of a positive reinforcing feedback loop that is present in systems. That is, a set of outputs, or outcomes, results in a virtuous cycle that propagates itself. The loop may be dynamic, growing as the outputs generate larger stocks from which the loop feeds. As a thought experiment, let’s imagine a small e-commerce business and how complexity may manifest itself, as the business becomes successful.
Let’s say I live in a rainy part of the country and I’ve got a few dogs that enjoy their walks. I love these pups, but I can’t stand cleaning up their muddy paw prints several times a day. Being crafty, I spend a weekend creating some simple booties they can wear outside and, importantly, take off when they come indoors. Naturally I share this with some friends and eventually Twitter where I hear enough requests to make them available for sale that I decide to open an Etsy shop. I buy some material and supplies from a craft store and make dog booties on the weekends. My business, Pawesome Pads, is born!
I didn’t realize how much my one-off project would become a popular product. Now I’m fielding requests for booties to keeps paws warm in the winter. A local veterinarian asked if I could fashion some comfortable booties to help prevent dogs from licking their paws while they heal. I’m now so busy handling these orders and related logistics, that I need help. Good thing I’m making money on this enterprise, because I can hire someone part-time to help me take these orders while I visit local textile shops that I can hire to outsource some of the effort. My business has gone from a 1-person outfit to having an employee and a vendor.
At some point I decide it’s time to create a standalone web presence (e.g. to better differentiate myself from other Etsy sellers; to boost SEO; to manage my own branding). My employee has done some work using tools like Wix and Squarespace but we agree it would be better if we hire a consultant to manage the build and operation of the new site, so we can focus on business operations. My consultant and I discuss goals and they opt to begin with static content deployed into the cloud via Netlify and backed by AWS RDS databases. We use Stripe to process payments. In addition, my consultant makes certain we have analytics set up so that we can keep an eye on traffic and flows on the site that lead to purchases. Things are good.
Doing some rough analysis one day, it looks like most purchases are coming from East Coast customers. There are a few on the West Coast and I’d like to reach more of them. The traffic analytics indicate that the experience for West Coast folks is slower than the East Coast; this might be a factor in reduced conversions (i.e. from browsing to buying). My web consultant says something about Netlify operating from an East Coast data center and makes some joke about the “speed of light”. We decide to migrate from Netlify to a self-hosted solution where the site is served by AWS resources on both the East and West Coast. Californians are in love with our dog booties and business picks up. I locate a textile facility around Sacramento and ramp up operations there so that we can get product into our customers’ hands (and their dogs’ paws) faster. I hire my web consultant full time.
We could continue this story until Pawesome Pads becomes a worldwide phenomenon, with an expanding product line (making dog and cat beds) and offices in different countries. Suffice it to say that in this story’s telling, we’ve grown from a single person hand-crafting a half dozen booties to a small business that employs people directly and indirectly and relies on resources such as the cloud. Our business, viewed as a system, is complex. That complexity arose as a result of our product being successful. The shape of the business and its related complexity emerged over time, much like that of a termite mound that grows with an expanding colony.
Important here is that we could not have determined that shape ahead of time. Several factors converged at different points in time to guide the current outcomes. In other words, we did not set out to create a complex system. Any complexity is a natural property of the system as it evolved to meet the demands of our customers.
Complexity is a by-product of success.
Motivation for writing this post comes from reflecting on past conversations about what it means to manage complexity and the (typically) negative connotations of doing so (i.e. the desire to “reduce complexity”). I believe that what is often ballyhooed as “complexity” is actually what might be better understood as “complicated”. The latter term can often be summarized as “I’m unclear how this works” or “I have difficulty making sense of this thing.” What is complicated is a matter of perspective.
In a subtly different way, complexity is also a matter of perspective, albeit from a vantage point from which we choose to focus. For example, when describing a complex system such as a forest, we tend to do so at a macroscopic level, detailing the plants, animals, and overall conditions in which they live. Certainly, though, there is additional complexity at the cellular level, not only within each organism but especially across them. What’s to stop us from expanding that description to that of the molecules and individual atoms that comprise those structures? Or the physical and electromagnetic phenomena that move and shape day-to-day conditions?
I do not think complexity is a thing to be feared or avoided, but understood as the outcome of many processes over an extended period of time. It is a topic to be explored in the hope that we might glean some useful knowledge about it and the forces that shape it. And, if nothing else, to revel in the beauty of it, which, in and of itself, is a worthy pursuit.