Complexity and risk

Stephen Grey spoke on emerging ideas relating risk and complexity at the PMI Adelaide Conference in May 2016 and later at the PMI Melbourne Chapter in June. The presentation material, including some extra slides to cover the spoken content, can be found here.

Almost all our reflex responses to uncertainty are based on unspoken assumptions. One of them is that we can find the causes and effects of risks, control them and optimise the outcome. This is the assumption of order, the assumption that there are fixed relationships between identifiable components and that we can understand and control these if we analyse them. It leads us to make long-term plans and monitor progress in terms of what we believe is important now.

When these well-ordered plans are overtaken by sudden events or creeping changes, we let ourselves off by blaming it on complexity. The most obvious complex challenges come out of multiple independent stakeholders interacting with one another to change the way work is carried out or even change the goal of a project.

We can do better if we separate order from complexity. When we face complexity, we need to disrupt the knee-jerk response to risks by:

  • Avoiding premature convergence on fixed ideas
  • Understanding that we can influence but not control
  • Investing in soft monitoring of the emerging state of the system
  • Watching for weak signals
  • Locking down the bits we can.

We can make sense of this using the Cynefin framework. This presentation illustrates how we can make a conscious decision about how we deal with a risk before launching into our default approach.