In this episode we discuss how you can get smarter in a complex and complicated world. How do you deal with confusing and difficult situations? How do you work through some of your life’s most complex problems? In a world of accelerating change, how do you accelerate the quest for wisdom and creativity? We share simple, powerful, solutions you can use to handle complexity in this interview with our guests David Komlos and David Benjamin.
David Komlos and David Benjamin - they are the CEO and CTO respectively of the company Syntegrity. Mr. Komlos is an expert coach for leaders on solving their issues. He advises top leaders and enterprises on how to dramatically accelerate solutions and execution on their defining challenges. Mr. Benjamin leads Syntegrity’s lab and client delivery organization. He has been recognized internationally for his work on global strategic planning with top executives in Fortune 500 companies.
What is complexity? Why is it so important to be able to handle complexity in today’s world?
How is complex different than complicated?
Experts can help solve complicated challenges, but not necessarily complex challenges
Complex challenges are multi-dimensional and human.
What are some basic mental models for sorting complex challenges vs complicated challenges?
Has this been solved before? And how was it solved?
Would this problem have been the same 5 years ago or 5 years from now?
Complex challenges don’t have a recipe or a discreet playbook to be solved
Planning a wedding is complicated, having a happy marriage is complex
Building a fence is complicated, being a good neighbor is complex
The Law of Requisite Variety / Ashby’s Law
"Only variety can destroy variety"
You can only solve complex challenges by bringing an equal amount of variety to a challenge
When we are facing tough complex challenges - we need a variety of experience and expertise
“A Lion In Your Office"
Often a BIG chunk of the challenge is just SEEING the problem in its entirety
An ounce of information is worth a pound of data. An ounce of knowledge is worth a pound of information. An ounce of understanding is worth a pound of knowledge. An ounce of wisdom is worth a pound of understanding.
Shared understanding is essential - but we often rush to action before we get there
We need FAST Wisdom and CREATIVE Judgement to solve our biggest challenges in today’s world - but wisdom takes a lifetime
How do you accelerate the quest for wisdom and solve the world’s toughest and most complex challenges?
Complexity is the defining challenge we face in todays’ world
How do you engineer Fast Wisdom?
The framework you can use to engineer “fast wisdom” and solve tough, complex challenges
N*N-1 Mental Model and how to create “collaborative collisions”
The ideal number of a group of people to work in a group is 5-8 people - you can have very creative and effective collisions
How you can create groups to crunch through tough, complex challenges - by using this specific formula
How do you ask good questions when looking to solve tough challenges?
Homework: Think about a dinner party. What question will guide the conversation in the right way? Who would you invite to create variety?
Thank you so much for listening!
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Want To Dig In More?! - Here’s The Show Notes, Links, & Research
PR Newswire: RTI International acquires Syntegrity Group
Eye for Pharma: “Could Systems Thinking Solve Pharma’s Problems?” by Adam Chapman
[Podcast] Leveraging Thought Leadership With Peter Winick – Episode 101 – David Benjamin
Cracking Complexity: The Breakthrough Formula for Solving Just About Anything Fast by David Komlos and David Benjamin
Cracking Complexity book site
[00:00:04.4] ANNOUNCER: Welcome to The Science of Success. Introducing your host, Matt Bodnar.
[00:00:11] MB: Welcome to the Science of Success, the number one evidence-based growth podcast on the internet with more than 3 million downloads, listeners in over a hundred countries.
In this episode, we discuss how you can get smarter in a complex and complicated world. How do you deal with confusing at difficult situations? How do you work through some of your life’s most complex problems? In a world of accelerating change, how do you accelerate the quest for wisdom and creativity? We share simple, powerful solutions you can use to handle complexity in this interview with our guests, David Komlos and David Benjamin.
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In our previous episode, we discussed how you create your own reality. We explored the idea that your life experiences are not random or arbitrary, but rather a direct result of your subconscious beliefs. When the conscious and the subconscious conflict, the subconscious wins and you’ll never get over your past until you realize how you’re using it to justify yourself.
We dug into the powerful revelation that life only ever changes in the paradigm of action, that you must do something differently than what you’ve done before in order to change. In our pervious episode, we talked about all of that and much more with our guest, Gary John Bishop. If you feel stuck and you finally want to figure out why and what to do about it, listen to our previous episode.
Now, for our interview with David and David.
[00:03:24] MB: Today, we have another exciting doubleheader, David Komlos and David Benjamin. They are the CEO and CTO respectively of the company, Syntegrity. Mr. Komlos is an expert coach for leaders on solving their challenges. He advices top leaders and enterprises on how to dramatically accelerate solutions and execution on their defining problems.
Mr. Benjamin leads Syntegrity’s lab and client delivery organization. He’s been recognized internationally for his work on global strategic planning with top executives in fortune 500 companies. David and David, welcome to the Science of Success.
[00:03:57] DB: Thank you, Matt. Thanks for having us.
[00:03:59] MB: Well, I’m very excited to have you both on the show today and the topic that you guys address in your book, Cracking Complexity, is so interesting and something that when I heard about, I really wanted to get you on the show, because the world today seems like it’s more and more complex, and complexity is increasing. There’s all kinds of very dynamic, emergent situations and anybody who can create frameworks for dealing with challenging, complex, difficult, and I would say complicated, but I want to hear in a second about the difference between those things, situations, is something really interesting to me. So let’s start out with what do you consider complexity and why is it so prevalent in today’s world?
[00:04:39] DK: Great question, Matt. Complexity, typically, when you’re faced with a complex challenge, you’re faced with a challenge that needs to be solved fresh and where you need to align many people. What we refer to as a critical mass of people for execution. These are new challenges each time and there is no recipe, there is no playbook until you solve the challenge and align the people around the solution.
Contrast that with complicated challenges. Complicated challenges are challenges that are very tricky for the person seeing them for the first time, but they’ve been solved many times before. For example, if your car breaks down, that’s a complicated challenge. If you’re putting in a new accounting system, that’s also a complicated challenge. If you’ve never fixed a car before or ever put an accounting system in, the best approach is to take an expert-centric approach. Take the car to the mechanic. Bring in a consultant firm that puts in accounting systems 24/7/365. That’s the right approach.
When you’re dealing with complex challenges like what should your big data strategy be, or how do you take this product global, or how do you take cost out of the organization sustainably, or what should your innovation agenda be, or how do you grow faster, or how do you realize the full benefits of a merger? Those are challenges that are very multidimensional. They’re human challenges.
In order to solve them, you really have to bring a diversity of talent to bear to co-create something new, some novel thinking around what really matters, what’s really going to work, and you need to get those people bought in.
[00:06:19] DB: Yeah, and I would say that these days, leaders are facing not only increasingly intense complexities, whether leaders in the business context or social context. People, every day, are just facing heightening complexity, more moving parts, less obvious interactions and interdependencies, although they’re there. So what we talk about in terms of cracking complexity really applies today probably more than ever to anyone who’s trying to make a living, trying to be a leader and so on.
[00:06:50] MB: That’s a great point, and often, and I probably even prior to reading the book and talking to you two, would have thought that complexity and complication are essentially synonyms, but I think it’s a really important distinction that you bring up. This idea that complicated things are something that an expert – And it might be a lot of steps and a lot of detail, but it’s something that you could bring in an expert to solve. Whereas complex challenges are often a little bit more nebulous, a little bit more deep, a little bit more open-ended. Is that a correct understanding of it?
[00:07:24] DB: Yeah, that’s right. As we talk about the person confronting any kind of complexity, we tell them that where they need to start, where a leader really needs to take on a different mindset is where as we might have thought coming out of school or beginning our career that leader knows best, leader is the most experienced person, leader knows the playbook, etc.
The first step in getting your hands around the complexity is recognizing that you don’t know what you don’t know. This is not something you can control, whether you or a small group of people that you trust. It really is bigger than you when you’re dealing with something complex and sort of letting go of the control you’re used to exercising as a leader, whether a senior leader or an up and coming leader, that’s the first step.
[00:08:09] MB: So what are some basic heuristics or mental models for discerning whether we’re dealing with a complex challenge or a complicated challenge?
[00:08:17] DB: So we tell leaders that they should think about whether, first of all, has this been solved before? Has this repeatedly been solved? If you were to hire somebody to solve this for you, would they fix price it or would they time-and-materials it? That’s a good indicator that there’s some uncertainty on the side of expert. If there’s uncertainty on the side of the expert, it’s looking more and more like it’s likely complex.
We also tell people to think about whether this problem would have looked the same five years ago and whether the various technological and human dimensions of the challenge would have been the same 5, 10 years ago or are they going to be the same 5 years from now? Because again, likely, if they’re changing and if the dynamics are changing, if the moving parts are changing, you’re looking at something that’s complex.
[00:09:05] MB: That’s a great frame to distinguish it and the car example is a simple and understandable way to contextualize that, which is this idea of fixing your car is roughly the same, whether it was 10 years ago or 10 years in the future. Obviously, there’s some technological change there. But by and large, that’s a relatively static, though complicated, system. I was going to say complex, but it’s a static, though complicated, system. So you can develop expertise around it, whereas these complex challenges – Help me understand a little bit more how you would define or contextualize those and think about whether they’re dynamic, whether they’re merging, etc.
[00:09:42] DK: So, let’s go back to the car and the accounting system being put in, those examples. If you go to your mechanic and tell him or her that your car is broken, they’re going to ask you a few questions. What you’ve observed? Any sounds emanating from the car and so forth? They’re going to very quickly be able to isolate the problem. When they tell you that the car is going to be ready on Thursday at 4:00, you’re not wondering if that’s accurate or not. You have full trust that it’ll be ready. This is an expert. He or she has done this many times before.
Similarly, with an accounting system, the consulting firm you hired to put in the accounting system, you’re hiring them because they have the gray hair of having done that many times before. They’ll ask your organization questions to discern the differences from the other situations they’ve been in. They know what success looks like and they know what they’re going to install. They just have to understand the similarities and differences from their other situations to go and do the job for you like they’ve done for others.
But there’s a difference between putting in an accounting system and taking 10% out of your cost structure sustainably without undermining the customer experience and employee morale. Putting in an accounting system is a linear task, not easy and not inexpensive. But as I said, the people who do it and day out know what success looks like. There’s a real step-by-step playbook.
If you want to take 10% out of your organization’s cost structure sustainably without undermining the customer experience of employee morale, there’re many more considerations that you have to take into account. Where should you cut? What are the implications of the cut? Should you reallocate funds or should you just take wholesale 10% out across the board? What is this going to do to the customer experience? Which customers could be impacted the most? What will your sales force think about it? What will the people in your delivery organization feel about this? How are you going to rejuvenate morale for the people who are left once you’ve taken out cost, and so on and so forth? These are human challenges, and if there was a playbook, Matt, if there were recipes for how to do this, there wouldn’t be a multibillion dollar management consulting industry that’s striving. Leaders would be rising through the ranks, because they would have just tackled these challenges successfully the first time every time. We wouldn’t even be talking about the difference between complicated and complex.
[00:12:04] DB: Just to give you another couple of examples that really resonate with people. We like to say that planning a wedding is complicated. Having a happy marriage is complex. Building a fence is complicated. Being a good neighbor is complex.
Again, it’s that line between science and art. Complexity is much more of a creative endeavor. Complexity, you’re much more working from a clean slate looking for something new, versus the complicated where you’re following the blueprint, executing the checklist, repeating a solution that’s known.
[00:12:38] MB: That’s a great way to contextualize and distinguish it. So I want to zoom out and talk about a concept that you bring up in the book that will tie back into this, but it’s one of actually my favorite heuristics or mental model. So I’ve always found it really interesting, and long before I ever read the book or head or you buys, this was something that I found really interesting, which is the law of requisite variety. Tell me what is that and how does that factor into solving and dealing with complex challenges.
[00:13:04] DK: The law of requisite variety is among the top three eye openers I’ve had in my career. The law of requisite variety is also known as Ashby’s Law, named after Ross Ashby. It say only variety can destroy variety. Only variety can destroy variety, which means when you’re dealing with a complex challenge, the high-variety challenge, like how do we grow faster, or how do we merge better, or how do we deliver a world beating customer experience, or any of these multidimensional challenges that are complex high-variety challenges.
You can really only hope it to solve them at pace and at scale by bringing an equal amount of variety to bear on the challenge by bringing an equal amount of variety that matches the variety, the many facets and multiple dimensions of the challenger trying to contend with. The way you do that is by tapping into a carefully chosen diversity of talent from inside your organization and from outside your organization to collectively combine their experience, their knowledge, their talent and, importantly, their influence, to not only crack the challenge and come up with whether it’s a strategy a strategy, or an action plan an action plan, or a solution a solution. Not only do that, but also represent a large group of people from across the system, all the key influencers and stakeholders who are now aligned and mobilized for execution.
[00:14:42] DB: I think a really simple illustration, I’ll just add to what David said, which I like to use, because I do engage in trivia games, is if you’ve ever been to a trivia night or a bar with various teams competing in trivia, you’ll see time and time again that the team that wins is usually the group of strangers who are brought together, because they didn’t have anywhere else to sit and they were put together. That’s because when you’re sitting with your family members or close friends who you’ve known for a long time, there’s not requisite variety at the table. You know too much of the same things. You’ve had too much of the same experiences.
When you put a group of strangers together, even by accident, you’ll end up with much more variety and you’ll be able to match the variety of the questions, whether they’re history, science, entertainment, sports, etc., that are thrown at you. Again, that’s a very simple example, but I think illustrates the power of variety.
[00:15:36] DK: Absolutely. You know, Matt, when you think about this in the context of a leader, whether you’re an established leader or you’re rising through the ranks an up and comer. When you think about requisite variety, having acknowledged that you’re dealing with a complex multidimensional challenge, the thinking through requisite variety and who collectively represent all the individuals that I need to bring together to solve something, to bring forth their combined best thinking talent, experience, expertise and so forth, and who are all the right people that I need to get bought in. That is a very big mindset shift from the way many leaders power up in the face of complex challenges.
The kneejerk reaction is to either strike a small taskforce, or to bring in consultants to do the solving for you. That is very, very time consuming and it doesn’t get at all the facets of the challenge that need to be addressed. It goes well beyond – Requisite variety goes well beyond the need to be cross-functional.
When we talk about requisite variety in the context of an organization, whether it’s about a growth strategy or you’re a leader who’s launching a product or you’re overseeing a merger, something like that, who are the people inside the organization, the usual suspects Also, who are the non-usual suspects? Do I bring people in from the field? Do I bring some high-potentials into the conversation? Who from outside my organization do I need as part of this solving exercise? Do I need customers? Do I need a supply chain partner? Do I need a partner from McKinsey, or from Accenture? Because, potentially, the Accenture folks aren’t necessarily going to contribute the solution, but they’re going to hit the ground running on the technology implementation. Forcing leaders to think through requisite variety in full is what creates these special purpose teams that accelerate the solutioning.
[00:17:36] DB: I would add, having done this personally and directly with fortune 500 organizations and high-earn C-suites of those organizations and mixed groups in social settings, in governments, etc., there’s actually some science to this. This is not figure it out as you go. This is not go on a hunch. There’s actually a framework that you can use to think carefully about all of the – Sort of the geographical zones if you want, or the functions and roles that you need to think about with an overlay of personality types, stake, attitude and so on.
Again, where the experience that we can bring into a conversation with a leader really matters is when we’re pushing them, for example, to bring in the SYNNEX, bring in the people who are going to get your way later on if they’re not on board, and look for that person who listens for hours and hours very carefully to what everyone else is saying before saying one really profound thing. We mean all of that when we’re talking about variety.
[00:18:38] MB: Yeah, that makes a ton of sense, and I think how do you look at – And this is getting into a little bit some of the framework that you have for solving complex challenges. But how do you think about what actually determines variety and what kind of variety we need and how do we look at selecting and identifying the right qualities of someone that’s going to bring a varied perspective experience, expertise, et cetera?
[00:19:04] DB: We encourage the leaders who are doing this to, first, take a good look at their own organization, their own system, whatever that means. Whether that’s a business or some other setting that they’re involved in a sports organization. Think through the various functions and roles and divisions, the hierarchical level. Just set aside who the people are and just think what’s the right coverage? Again, be as minimalistic as possible while getting the right coverage. You don’t need every general manager from every business unit, but we do want representation from across the business units. So maybe I choose an IT person from one place, the leader from somewhere else and a frontline person from a third business unit.
Then pull back the lens and start to think about who’s on the frontline, and it’s often the frontliners who make all the difference in the world in terms of really connecting the dots for people who aren’t actually physically in contact with customers on a day-to-day basis, talking from them, hearing from them. So get the frontliners in there.
Again, [inaudible 00:20:05] maybe this is an opportunity to cover the geographies and really kind of go region by region and find some really strong frontline people. Then pull back the lens even further and start to think about the market and who best in my organization can represent the customer, and am I willing to actually bring the customer into the conversation, and what partners do I have who are there in the market with us who can really call out our strengths and our weaknesses and what they see going on as they work with us and other organizations. Sometimes going as far as thinking into parallel realities, what other industries and what other industry leaders that have nothing to do with us have been through this kind of challenge before who might really inform our thinking with the experiences that they had?
Then the last group that we really point people to think about, again, being as minimalistic, but holistic as possible, is the people who are going to have to execute, implement whatever comes out the other end. We say bring in that project manager and the communications person and the doers who are going to enact whatever is solved, because if they have full context, they’re going to do a far better job. So that’s sort of the coverage you’re looking for.
Then as I was saying earlier, then you look at the human beings and you start to look for personality types, experiences, other hats they wear and the way that they engage and their demographic variety. Always looking for that richest possible variety in a small group as possible.
[00:21:39] MB: That totally makes sense. Kind of striking the balance between a small as you can go, but still hitting that threshold for enough variety. It’s like the official frontier of variety basically.
[00:21:50] DB: That’s right, and there’s sometimes is not room for political correctness and who you invite. You might anger a few people who don’t make the list, but the importance is the variety. Not that everybody gets involved and feels good.
[00:22:06] MB: I want to come back, and before we dig too much further into the solutions and some of the framework that you guys have for solving these complex challenges, tell me about another mental model I found really interesting that I had never heard it before that you kind of paired up with the law of requisite variety, which is this idea of a lion in the office.
[00:22:26] DK: So this really gets at a universal truth, and we explain it as follows. Imagine, and take it seriously. Imagine that you walk into your office one day. Round the corner and confront a lion sitting on your desk. What would happen? I’ll tell you what would happen. In about the blink of an eye, you would slam the door and run away. But if you deconstruct that split second, Matt. If you deconstruct that blink of an eye, what really happened during that blink of an eye is you very, very, very quickly sensed the lion. You absorbed the fact that it’s real. You, in lightning speed, thought through the various options that are available to you. You decided on what you’ve thought is the best option. Then you executed it. You acted on it.
It took a split second from sensing the lion to fleeing. You didn’t take a moment to call the IT help desk. You didn’t strike a taskforce. You didn’t call in consultants to recommend options. You literally sensed the lion, and a split second later you were gone.
Now, when you’re a leader in an organization faced with a complex challenge like growing faster or taking cost out, or any of the other complex challenges that we’ve mentioned, your team, your organization, your business unit, the system you’re in, cannot, does not act as fast as you do in the context of a lion sitting on your desk. It takes many, many people to sense what’s going on regarding a given challenge. It takes them a long time to absorb the implication of what’s really going on, and then to think through and decide on the best course available to them also takes a very, very long time. Then to act in a unified way on the solution that they came up, very time consuming. The reason is, is that we’re all distributed. Most of us are basically physically siloed and distant from one another. We’re highly specialized. We speed different languages. So it takes a very long time for us to get to a shared understanding of really what’s going on and what to do about it.
This ties really closely to requisite variety that we’re talking about. Only variety can destroy variety and the need to bring together all those individuals. As David Benjamin expressed, all the right individuals, the minimum and necessary group of people who collectively can sense everything relevant to the challenge absorb everything together and all the implications. Think through them, decide on the path forward and then represent critical mass of people who can act in a unified way.
[00:25:18] DB: So, one really micro example that might be familiar to people is that sales person who deals everyday with customers and understands what they’re going through and what they need doesn’t usually get to sit in the room with the people who are making the decisions, thinking about next generation set of products to really have a conversation about what is it the customer needs. What is it I see? What is it I believe? And to have a good give and take, because we don’t usually put those people in the room together.
The power, we like to say SATDA, as a short form for sensing, absorbing, thinking, deciding and acting. The power of treating that as one effort is enormous. That’s where we’re able to talk about exponential leaps forward, because you don’t have the linear time delay of going from one function to the next.
[00:26:11] MB: This is bit of an aside, but I’m curious, are you familiar with John Boyd and the OODA Loop?
[00:26:16] DB: I’m not.
[00:26:17] DK: I’m not either.
[00:26:18] MB: Okay. No worries. I was only curious, because it’s a very similar to the kind of SATDA framework. He’s a really well-known fighter pilot. Basically, revolutionized aerial combat, and he had this thing called the OODA Loop, which is observe, orient, decide, act, and you try to iterate that as quickly as possible and shorten it and had this whole thing where he applied this to a theory of combat. But it’s really interesting only to see that across various disciplines, very similar idea, which is how can you shrink down that gap between observation, decision, action essentially and really create a very tight feedback loop so that you can solve these iterative and complex and emergent situations.
[00:26:57] DB: Yeah, and I just want to clarify. That’s great. I’m going to go look that up as soon as we’re done here. One of the nuances, the subtleties that people don’t necessarily pick up on is that when we’re talking about variety, when we’re talking about SADTA and we’re talking about treating those as one effort and getting everybody together. At least given today’s technologies, we’re talking about getting people together in one place. Not for a long amount of time, and people tend to not do that because they think it’s going to take too long and it’s going to be too much of a burden on people.
But the physical presence together, research has shown, makes all the difference in the world in terms of the obvious things, like body language and really hearing people and really engaging with people. But also in how the brain works and the way brains can work together, but only if they’re only physically present together.
[00:27:46] DK: And just with the fighter pilot that you mentioned, fascinating. One key distinction, when I think about a fighter pilot, sensing, orienting, deciding and acting, which is very similar to what we’re saying around SADTA. The fighter pilot would have a lot more available to him or her to sense and orient themselves and decide and then be able to act much like you have a lot going for you when you confront a lion in your office. You have all your senses about you. Your neurons are firing all in a closed system much like the fighter pilot.
When you’re dealing with post-merger integration or how to take a product global, how to take cost out of your business, how to grow faster, we really do need to create an engineer, a mega brain, comprised of all the different individuals who are catching glimpses of those challenges. Different realities, different areas of talent and expertise that need to be brought to bear that no individual has on his or her own.
[00:28:46] MB: Yeah. That’s actually a really important point, which especially today’s organizations, a big piece of the challenge is just trying to actually see and understand the problem in its entirety, and it’s so hard to overcome whether it’s the political dynamics, or the interpersonal, or even a lot of the psychological barriers, to just collecting information. As you put in sort of the first step to solving this, is acknowledging the problem.
[00:29:12] DB: Yes, it’s about acknowledging the problem. You raise a good point. It’s very hard to really understand what is the problem in its full glory. Russ Ackoff at Wharton, professor emeritus, may he rest in peace, used to say, “An ounce of information is worth a pound of data, and an ounce of knowledge is worth a pound of information, and an ounce of understanding is worth a pound of knowledge, and an ounce of wisdom is worth a pound of understanding.”
We have tons of data information and knowledge in our organizations individually and collectively. What we really lack though, as you said, Matt, to put words in your mouth, are a really clear shared understanding of the challenges we face and what is really going on, what really matters, what doesn’t matter as much as we thought. To get to that shared understanding with all the noise that we have with data information and knowledge takes a very long time. That shared understanding is gold. It is the platform upon which you can get to wise and creative judgment, and is the limiting factor really in coming up with whole solutions that people are bought into and able to execute. Anything less than shared understanding is partial understanding.
With a partial understanding, you have partial outcomes starting with a partial understanding of the problem, as you pointed out. The partial understanding of the problem you’re solving for part of the problem. Then you’re acting on a partial solution.
[00:30:51] DB: And if I can jump in for a moment, shared understanding, if you want something that anyone can take away immediately and apply in their daily life or in the next meeting they attend. This notion of not rushing to action before establishing that you’ve got shared understanding, it’s so powerful. It seems so obvious, but we’re always in such a rush to do that we often don’t take the time to really pay attention to what someone else is saying, to listen carefully, to reassert that we heard them accurately and that they understand now that we understand before trying to talk about solutions. Because without that, it’s not just partial solutions. But I’ve watched conversations where people have walked away with completely different assumptions and understandings of what they decided, because they didn’t take the time to do that.
[00:31:40] MB: You bring up a really great point as well and it reminds me of something a good friend of mine told me a couple of months ago when we were chatting. I asked him a question, he said, “That question requires wisdom to answer,” and I like to call that kind of capital W, Wisdom, which is I really love that quote. I forget the entire sequence of events that went there, whether it was data and information and all those other things. But I’ll have to go back through the transcript and write that down, because that was a great quote. But it’s so important, and wisdom is often one of the hardest things to come by. In many ways, to solve these complex challenges, really what we need to ultimately cultivate is wisdom.
[00:32:19] DB: Yes, Matt. Exactly. We, in the past, have talked about it as fast wisdom, because it’s kind of a paradox. We need wisdom and creative judgment to get to answers to the big challenges in life, in our personal lives, in our corporate lives, in societal challenges that we face.
But as you know, wisdom takes a lifetime. So as we talk about accelerating and unprecedented complexity that is not slowing down, that really is the new normal. People have wrapped their heads around that. This is not news to people that complexity is the defining challenge we face today and tomorrow. It’s how do you drive, how do you engineer fast wisdom. Not just wisdom, but how do you do it at a pace that’s reasonable given the survival needs of individuals, societies and companies?
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[00:35:06] MB: So let’s get into that. How do we create clarity in the face of this confusion? How do we figure out the actual solutions and plans to these complex challenges, and what’s the framework that you two have created to help people work through that?
[00:35:24] DB: I’ll start by basically saying that it’s the difference between recognizing the importance of direct connections between all the right people versus whoever has the best brain power wins. So the old world, the old models say, “Whoever has the best brain power, whoever is tapping into the greatest genius, to figure out the slickest, most fit answer, they’re going to win.” That’s just not true anymore, especially as David said, complexity is accelerating and becoming more and more prevalent.
Back to requisite writing, it’s not enough to get all the right people together. Let’s say you’re talking about 40 people. It’s not enough to throw them around a boardroom table and say, “Go. Figure this out.” The key is that they’re all connected directly with each other and that you are putting them through a sequence of what we call collisions, where they are interacting in a meaningful way with every other individual there for a brief amount of time in most cases, where they have a chance to understand and learn something from each other and then share a piece of information or come away with an insight that only that collision could have brought them.
To do that many, many, many times very quickly in a system that is capturing everything that happens at every collision point and distributing that out to all the other collision points. That is sort of the optimal framework for cracking complexity.
Now, you can’t always build a network that is that highly connected and that efficient. When you can’t, it’s a matter of doing better. It’s a matter of asking yourself, “Am I really getting value from that one hour of plenary time where there’s a presenter talking at this group, or is a way I can make that far more interactive? Am I really doing enough if I put people around the table for a conversation, or do I need to give them a [inaudible 00:37:20] and some speaking roles so that they’re forced to listen while others are talking and then forced to talk while others are listening?” It’s the difference between ignoring all of that and hoping for the best, versus doing all of that and engineering the serendipity that you’ll get in terms of the events as you need to solve your challenge?
[00:37:42] DK: When we do this with leaders and we’re applying the formula, they have acknowledged that they’re dealing with a complex challenge to begin with, that it’s not complicated, that it’s complex. They’ve framed the challenge in the form of a question. That really is the invitation for people to collaborate. They’ve targeted a requisite variety of people who represent those who can solve the challenge by pulling their knowledge, their talent, their experience, and their influence. They’ve brought them together. They’ve level-set them, and now we are colliding them and they are colliding with one another in a very engineered way.
Let’s say you have 8 people together, or 30 people together. To be very specific, the number of collisions that you have manage are N times minus 1 collisions, where N are the number of people involved. So for 8 people, you’ve got 8 times 7, 56 collisions that need to be managed and accounted for. If you’re in a group of 30, of 30 times 29 collisions that need to be managed and accounted for, and not just engineered so that every individual is colliding and interacting many times with every other individual in contrast to just a few keeners or a subset of people who are passionate about subject, talking while everyone else has checked out. You need to make sure that they’re all interacting with one another and that those interactions are very effective, right? They’ve very high-quality, candid, transparent, disarmed, highly engaging, issues-focused interactions.
When you do that and you iterate through those collisions with everyone colliding and interacting with everyone else many times, back and forth. It can take us few as two, three days to get after the answers to these big challenges and really get the pooling of information and talent and knowledge and experience and influence in a way that solves the challenge and has everyone who co-created the solution totally psyched and bought in around what they’ve co-created.
[00:39:48] DB: So I just want to add a mathematical footnote, because for anyone who’s familiar with the N times N minus 1 formula. They might be wondering why we don’t divide by two when we talk about that. That’s just because collisions, we talk about them, are not bidirectional. Me colliding with David in a mode where I’m listening and he’s speaking is very different from me colliding with David in the mode where he’s listening and I’m speaking. So we don’t divide by two for that reason.
[00:40:18] MB: So, briefly, there’s a number of different directions and ways I want to unpack this and dig into, but this is a good example or an instance to just explore this mental model a little bit better. For listeners who may not be familiar with N times N minus 1, explain just briefly how that mental model works and what it means and how people can think about and apply that in different contexts.
[00:40:38] DB: It’s just the way to calculate. It’s the formula for calculating how many connections there are amongst N people. So when we talk about it, we think about those connections as each one needing to be activated. Each one being the channel through which a collision can happen.
In fact, as we do the calculation for how many collisions you need, it’s not just N times N minus 1. There’s a multitude of those collisions you need to create where, again, people are in different modes with each other. Very importantly, the iteration through all of those collisions multiple times so that people can move and leave their agenda behind and learn new things and adapt to what everyone else is thinking and saying and believing and the new information they gain and sort of iteratively move from discussing status quo issues, opportunities, what’s going on, the stories we tell. Moving then to ideas and then moving finally to decisions and recommendations.
[00:41:43] DK: Matt, as David said earlier, there’s ideal ways to engineer these serendipitous interactions, and some organizations actually use algorithms to allocate people to teams in a way where they’re going to collide with one another and nothing’s left to chance.
David also said, if you can’t do that, if you’re not going to do that – As a leader, if you’re bringing together 8 people or 15 people or 20 people for a day or even three hours, you want to do better. You want to rotate people through a variety of conversations in a way that approximates the N times N minus 1 collisions that are needed to make sure everyone is interacting with everyone else. You want to do your best and rotate people through a variety of conversations and make note that Mary has had a few conversations with John. John has had a few conversations with Ivan. Ivan has had a few conversations with Mary, and so on and so forth. Really keeping your eye on that really leads to explosions of brain power and emotional commitment.
[00:42:43] DB: I want to give you a shortcut as well, which is we talk about these as collision teams. If you put together a group of five to eight people, they can actually have a very productive conversation, and that’s the limit to the size of a group of people, the number of people in a conversation who can interact effectively. If you start to put 9 people, 10 people into a conversation, you’ll routinely see one or two or three of them starting to tune out and not participating equally and somebody dominating, frustration and so on.
So when you move into breakouts, when you work in groups, if the size of the conversation is in that range, five to eight, then you can have very effective collisions in there amongst all the people who are participating. So that’s how you can shortcut the number of interactions you need to have in order to do all the colliding that has to happen.
[00:43:36] DK: A nice additional technique when you are in your collision teams and you’re really focusing on having people interact with each other many times, to make those interactions highly effective, not just high-volume, but highly effective. What we’ve seen work really well is assigning some of the team members as what we call members. Assigning others as critiques and assigning yet the others as observers, and making sure that these rules are played by everybody in a fair way, that everyone plays the roles a number of times. Where, really, it’s the job for the members to advance the dialogue as far as possible in service of answering that question that you’ve convened people to answer.
The role of the critiques is to really listen, and from time to time critique, provide as much help as they possibly can through critical feedback to the members without becoming members themselves. Their job is just critique. Then observers, we find, is both a very useful and a very frustrating role. These are individuals in a team that can only listen. They have no speaking role.
When you switch these roles up between people through an iterative approach to the conversation and you’re colliding them many, many times, what you find is issues-focused dialogue, surfacing everything from every angle. People listening differently knowing they can’t just dominate speaking. They know that they have to listen for a few minutes before critiquing or that is an observer they have no speaking role, whatsoever. It changes the dynamic of the group. It’s very disarming. For leaders who are listening, it becomes very self-managing.
When you institutionalize the member critique observer role in your meetings, your people get used to it very quickly and realize that, “It’s my job to be the critique now. So I’m going to be the critique,” and it’s going to be very issues-focused instead of personality focused, or personal.
[00:45:38] DB: Yeah, and I think if I could advice to people listening. As leaders, if you want to be a better leader tomorrow, in the very next meeting you attend where you’ve got some sort of hierarchical or power advantage in the room, pull your chair to the back of the room. Designate yourself as a critique and inform everyone at the table that I’m going to listen and not say a word for the next 20 minutes. Then I will take a minute to critique what I just heard and then I’m going to pull myself back out. Then I’m going to do that a second time, but it’s on you to figure this out. I’m here to help in those two intermittent moments where I joined the conversation.
[00:46:11] DK: The important thing about that, in terms of what David just said, is as a leader, you’re not abdicating your decision rights. But what you’re doing is really granting discussion rights to the group of people, and they will notice that. They will notice how you’re conducting meetings. They will notice the effectiveness of the communication. The bar has been raised in a meaningful way. The outcomes are much better, frankly, and faster.
[00:46:38] MB: Some great, great strategies and advice and crafting these dynamic groups to help solve challenges like these. I love the observer critique member framework. I want to change gears, because there’s so many rich strategies for dealing with complexity that I want to talk about, and we’re going to run out of time.
One of the other things that I thought was universally applicable and relevant and interesting that you touched on was the importance of asking good questions and how to do that. Because the quality of your life is the quality of your questions, and that’s something that I firmly believe in. So how do you think about crafting and asking the most effective questions possible?
[00:47:16] DB: It’s funny, because it sounds like it would just be a matter of putting pen to paper and writing down a question and finishing with a question mark. In fact, leaders who do this well will spend a lot of time thinking about what is the scope of the question I’m asking.
Again, we’re starting with a complex challenge. What do we need to ask the group I’m going to ring together to solve this? I have to give the guidance on scope. I have to give them guidance on the kind of action that I’m looking for and who should be taking those actions. That comes down to what am I saying; what should we do, or what should you do, or what should they do, really thinking that through. Giving guidance on timeline, both timeline for action and timeline for result.
When it comes to result, very specifically, setting a goal in the goldilocks zone between easy to achieve and not achievable at all. Something that’s aspirational. Something that people see they could achieve, but only if things change. Only if we get out of the status quo and do something different.
So with that goal, with the clarity on the timeline, with the right action frame, with the right scoping, you’ve got a good question. But the other caution is it’s very easy as you’re doing those things to bake in your own bias. So if you’re getting all the right people together to answer the question, the last check you do on the questions, whether you’ve inadvertently built in some of your own assumption and biases that are just going to get in the way.
So kind of have a constraint, like we need to do this profitably. But you got to make sure that when you’re saying, “But we need to do this profitably,” you’re not cutting out a whole bunch of things that could have been considered as part of the solution.
[00:49:04] DK: And Matt, we find that a lot of leaders really benefit early on in their powering up to solve something big by bringing in a couple of confidants, a couple of their colleagues, people who they want to get involved early on and whose buy-in they want in the overall solution to the challenge. They get that early on by having them inform and shape the question itself.
So getting a group of people, 2, 3, 4 people together in a room and say, “Given that we’re dealing with this big data strategy challenge that we’ve lost traction with or we’re trying to double our growth rate or we’re trying to build a culture of innovation or whatever it is.” How would we frame this? What’s the question we’re really trying to answer?
When you work through that in a small group, not only do you, the leader, emerge with what the right question is. You’ve got the beginnings of buy-in and alignment from your key stakeholders and key influencers who shaped it with you.
[00:50:05] DB: Yeah, and you just have to be careful. [inaudible 00:50:06] David as much as anything else, when you’re bringing together a group of people to do this, you have to watch out for the fear and the trepidation that as you add more and more people, you begin to bake in to the question. We don’t want to forget all the great effort people have already put in. Is that bar too high? Is that going to make people uncomfortable? The more people you have involved.
So, again, it’s that goldilocks zone of getting the right level of involvement and making sure people have their fingers on the question as well, but making sure you’re not watering it down and making it something that’s going to drive the same old things.
[00:50:41] MB: So we’ve obviously gone through a lot of practical solutions and implementations for dealing with complexity. For listeners who are listening to this and maybe dealing with a complex challenge in their lives, what would be one homework, or action step, or action item that you would give them to start implementing some of these ideas or to take a first step or to begin taking a bite out of that complex challenge that they’re facing?
[00:51:07] DB: So I would say pay attention to the challenge. Think about it. Write a question. Leave that question sitting on your coffee table. Keep looking back it and seeing if it’s the right question and having a pen handy to keep modifying it.
But then you know you’ve got the question, think about the variety of people, and it might be that it’s a question about your next career choice and that your variety might be eight people. But really challenge yourself to think about the scarcity of seven other seats, because you’re going to be one of the eight people, and who you would put into those seats without wasting one opportunity to have a perspective that could be there.
This is very real. People do this. We’ve applied the formula with businesses and across organizations. We’ve also applied the formula or helped individuals apply the formula for themselves as they’re making career decisions. So if you think in terms of a dinner party and if you think about the eight seats at the table and you think about the question that will guide the conversation at the dinner table, then if you think very carefully about who you’d invite and get really creative about how to get as much variety as possible.
People from in your life, people who don’t know you, people who think a particular way, people who challenge for the sake of challenging, people who are able to distill a whole bunch of thoughts down to a coherent point from time to time. Think about that variety. If you actually wanted to proceed into that conversation, you’d have a great conversation.
[00:52:40] MB: Love the example of a dinner party, and that really helps contextualize it in a way that’s applicable and easy and a great simple framework to implement.
So David and David, what are the best ways for listeners to find you, to find your work, to find the book, etc., online?
[00:52:56] DK: A really good way to find the book and find out more is at www.crackingcomplexity.com.
[00:53:06] DB: And I am ComplexityDB on Twitter, and David is ComplexityDK.
[00:53:12] MB: Well, gentleman, thank you both so much for coming on the show, for sharing all these wisdom. Complexity is one of the biggest challenges of the world today, and it’s great to look at a number of different frameworks and strategies for helping to breakdown and solve complexity in our lives.
[00:53:12] DB: Thank you, Matt. Great speaking with you.
[00:53:30] DK: Yeah. Thanks for having us.
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