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Endgame: Using design to harness complexity

Chuck Moore Chuck Moore 4 min read

It’s impossible to eliminate complexity. Instead, by harnessing the complexity in your business, you are able to align resources and strategy to deliver out-sized value to customers via products and services. Design can help.

If you were to wander around the campus at MIT during the mid ’30s you would have seen a tall, intense man hurrying between engineering buildings, looking preoccupied and perhaps a bit out-of-sorts. His name was Claude Shannon, and at 21 he was among the most intelligent and creative thinkers in the school.

Even as a child Shannon had a knack for science and engineering. At six his hero was Thomas Edison. At twelve he built a telegraph system over barbed wire to communicate with a friend that lived a mile away. He built model planes and remote control boats, becoming fascinated with what was then a new technology - digital switches.

As an undergrad he was introduced to the work of George Boole, and he was struck by an idea that at first seemed crazy. Could digital switches be used to calculate Boolean logic? He obsessed over the topic for years, eventually writing a thesis that proved that they could — in fact, he showed how digital switches could be used to solve any problem in Boolean algebra. As World War II heated up the government poured money into computer research, and Shannon’s work became a fundamental concept underlying all digital computers.

Shannon’s hobby was chess, a game with rules that could theoretically be followed algorithmically. He started to wonder about another crazy idea - could digital computers be programmed to play? To better understand the problem set, he started to calculate the number of different chess games that it’s possible to play. For example, there are 20 possible first moves that white can make, and 20 possible counters for black, so there are 400 possible configurations of the board after two moves. How many configurations are possible after three moves? After four?

Shannon worked it out and published his findings in a 1950 paper called “Programming a Computer for Playing Chess.” In it he shows that an average game of 40 moves, there are about 10^120 possible games to play. This is a very large number. It’s many more than the number of atoms in the observable universe (which is 10^82, give or take, or one-hundred thousand quadrillion vigintillion). His conclusion: teaching computers to play chess is not practical, at least with 1950s technology.

This number, 10^120, is called the “Shannon number.” It’s an illustration of how almost unfathomable complexities can be hidden in plain sight. More - such “hidden” complexities aren’t unusual. They’re the rule.

Complexity Upon Complexity

Chess, even with its near-infinite scope of play, doesn’t approach the complexities at work within systems that we interact with every day. Chess is constrained in multiple ways:

  • There is a fixed set of interacting elements (the pieces)
  • There is a defined set of ways elements can interact (the rules)
  • There are no external forces changing the game (that’s cheating)

Truly complex systems have none of these features. Ecologies, biological systems, and economies are all examples of complex adaptive systems, which turn the constraints of a game like chess on its head:

  • There is an unpredictable and changing number of interacting elements
  • There are unpredictable and changing ways the elements can interact
  • There are unpredictable and changing external forces that impact the system

Design techniques enable a better understanding of elements within a system

A complex system is made up of many different elements. The elements can be individual people, groups (like “engineering”), technologies. Each of these elements has their own perspective, and each has an incomplete understanding of the overall system. A first step toward building a product strategy is to connect these fragments of understanding into a cohesive whole that can be considered and explored by the team. Design techniques are especially good at this, helping harmonize perspectives toward a common understanding. It serves to synthesize and encourage change.

Approaching a problem from a design perspective helps us to better grasp reality - to classify, extrapolate and predict. This work allows us to build models that help to discover market needs, identify a strategy for next steps, and build a vision for the future. For the modern business, Design is a strong model of leadership.

Design helps better coordinate interdependent elements

A complex system is made up of many different elements. These elements interact together in unpredictable ways. To help a system achieve a goal, it’s important that different elements interact constructively. Design techniques help people within a complex system better cooperate.

In 2010, the IBM Global CEO Study announced, “More than rigor, management discipline, integrity or even vision—successfully navigating an increasingly complex world will require creativity.” Two years later, it added three more essential traits: “empowering employees through values, engaging customers as individuals, and amplifying innovation through partnerships.”

For us, fostering these traits means a focus on development of trust within an environment of open communication. When people trust each other, they communicate better, which increases efficiency and results in company growth. Interactions become faster, and costs lower. The design process helps facilitate communication and foster trust in many ways.

First, the design process helps people develop a shared vocabulary so that people with different backgrounds, contexts and worldview can move on from a conversation about what the goal is to a more productive conversation about how the goal can be achieved.

Second, the design process helps people use the shared vocabulary to explore the problem set by creating tangible artifacts such as empathy maps, journey maps, storyboards and the like. This work helps enable a visualization of complex ideas, especially abstract ideas that may be harder to grasp.

Finally, the design process helps a team consider ideas democratically, without a hierarchy playing a role in which ideas get consideration. For example, a design-led workshop might use sticky notes to write down ideas, and no idea is larger or louder than another.

Prepare for unpredictable external pressure

A complex system is made up of many different elements, that interact together in unpredictable ways. These elements are also impacted by external pressures in unpredictable ways. For a business, these external pressures can come from competitors, technology changes, regulatory changes, economic changes, or all of these.

Companies simply don’t last as long as they used to. As time moves on, a company’s ability to compete against forces seen and unseen requires a certain amount of risk taking that successful organizations are loathe to take. As organizations become successful, they often struggle to break free of the burden of that success. Innovation is stifled purely because business-as-usual forces are too powerful to break.

But some companies reliably succeed over the long term. These “High reliability” organizations are those that have performed well even as market pressures impacted them unpredictably over time. Research to better understand what differences exist within a reliable organization show that they use the design process not just to form a complete picture of the system and better communicate, but also to maintain a “vision” for the future. Reliable organizations proactively work to discover and respond to unforeseen events, thereby lowering the risk of disastrous outcomes.

An outside perspective is required to bring new thought to an organization because it can effectively foster trust and facilitate communication, both vital to coping with change and aligning around a strategy. An outside perspective is critical for this process because fostering trust involves aligning multiple stakeholders, including internal (employees), external (the market) and societal (other members of society who judge the business). Each of these stakeholders require different approaches.

Design as a model for leadership

Design is a process of problem solving that creates new and useful products, places, communications, or experiences. It’s about responding flexibly to complex systems and the changing needs within them. It embodies desire, pursues a stated direction, and reflects a shared vision.