The complex life of guavas

May 21, 2009

I was struck by the allusion that Dave Snowden and Mary Boone used in their November 2007 Harvard Business Review article, to describe the difference between the complicated and complex domains. They described how a Ferrari racing car is an impressive piece of engineering, but can be stripped down and put back together again, with the aid of a good car manual and a fair bit of expertise. This ‘complicated domain’ task is tricky certainly, but it can be done. However, an Amazon rainforest, if cleared, cannot be re-created by planting the same plants again and hoping it will all somehow come together. This complex web of relationships and interdependencies cannot be predicted and reconstructed. I am remembering this example, because I have inadvertently created a similar situation in my backyard.

I have a guava tree that, for years, has delivered a delicious crop just at this time of year. Provided I pick the fruit just before it falls, I get more than the insects do. It’s an arrangement which both they and I think is fair. However, at Christmas my husband and I put a water feature in our garden, which includes a small pool of water. We have since come to discover that the permanent water provides the necessary conditions for certain kinds of wasps to build a nest. Apart from stinging us on two occasions, these uninvited guests attack the fruit while it is still on the tree, causing it to rot almost as soon as it is picked.

Who would have thought that a small pool installed in December would ruin my reliable crop of guavas in May? It also took some detective work to figure it all out, as there was no obvious ‘cause and effect’ relationship. Complexity is hard to deal with, because it operates in ways completely unsuited to our traditional, logical approaches to problem-solving. I have found the insights gained from the thinkers and practitioners working in the field of complexity to be absolutely invaluable. The power of the CE tools to help us find solutions to intractable problems in organisations, continues to surprise me. They even help me to understand what is happening in my own back yard.

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The Cynefin Company (formerly known as Cognitive Edge) was founded in 2005 by Dave Snowden. We believe in praxis and focus on building methods, tools and capability that apply the wisdom from Complex Adaptive Systems theory and other scientific disciplines in social systems. We are the world leader in developing management approaches (in society, government and industry) that empower organisations to absorb uncertainty, detect weak signals to enable sense-making in complex systems, act on the rich data, create resilience and, ultimately, thrive in a complex world.

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