#34: You have to start somewhere

A defence of simplicity.

I’m Luke Craven; this is another of my weekly explorations of how systems thinking and complexity can be used to drive real, transformative change in the public sector and beyond. The first issue explains what the newsletter is about; you can see all the issues here.


Hello, dear reader,

tl;dr: Simple is not a dirty word. Simplifying the complex can lead to questions and insights that would otherwise not be possible, but we need to pay attention to how simplifications are used and function in different contexts.

In 2015, I attended a talk by David Graeber in London as part of the release of his new book The Utopia of Rules. David was an unassuming academic who grappled with his fame. Public events were clearly not his preferred medium. Shy and self-deprecating on stage, I was utterly engrossed by his talk.

What interested me most were the connections he made between the practice of bureaucracy and the practice of social theory. Bureaucracy is increasingly being pummelled for the the way it simplifies, schematises and codifies the social world, stripping back the subtleties and complexities of our existence. Graeber argued that this is not so different from the practice of social theory, with one crucial difference: the function of the knowledge that each system produces. Bureaucratic knowledge is commonly used as an instrument of violence. Theoretical knowledge, in contrast, can be an instrument of imagination and emancipation.

“Without theory, there are no questions.”

— W. Edwards Deming, p. 70

That conversation changed the way I think about theoretical knowledge and its different functions. Graeber rejected attempts to create a single, grandiose theory of thought, language and society as ridiculous. Instead he saw theory as a tool for simplifying complex material in such a way to be able to say something unexpected. He believed deeply that radically simplifying reality could lead to questions and insights that one would almost certainly never achieve through attempts to take on the world in its full complexity. We so commonly write simplification off as a form of stupidity, but it can be a form of intelligence. It’s an initial move, from which more sophisticated ones can follow. You have to start somewhere.

For me, this highlights the different functions of systems and complexity theory in practice: as enabling constraints, as ways of seeing, and as our imaginative and creative partners. It also highlights that we need to be more nuanced in our framing of the role that abstraction and simplification play in making sense of complexity.

“The endless mobilisation of the single critical trope in which simplification figures as a reduction of complexity leaves a great deal to discover.”

— John Law and Annemarie Mol 2002, p. 6

I wonder if this journey of discovery requires us to spend more time asking questions of ourselves and each other like:

  • What kind of simplification is necessary here? (The reduction of complexity is a prerequisite for sense-making, but different kinds of reduction are possible).

  • How do different kinds of simplification enable different imaginative and sense-making practices?

  • Why do we so commonly default to framing simplicity and complexity in oppositional terms? How might we enable different ways of understanding and engaging with their relatedness?

  • Do we need to pay more attention to the function of knowledge generated through the use of systems and complexity theories? Should form follow function in theory creation? To what extent do systems and complexity theories offer the right affordances to practitioners that are increasingly hungry for change?

My hope is that these questions are fruitful interventions into the conversation about how we collectively engage with and respond to complexity. Their answers wont be definitive and that’s precisely the point. It is productive to be lost in familiar terrain.


Making connections…

  • My hunch is that an increased recognition of simplicity, reduction, and the limits of theoretical knowledge will see an increased role for eclectic practices as a way to weave together different ways of making sense of the world. Eclectic practices are an effort to guard against the risks of excessive reliance on a single sense-making framework and the simplifying assumptions that come with it. They enable practitioners to engage, complement and selectively utilise different frameworks embedded in contending traditions to build complex arguments about a complex world. There are tentative steps in this direction, including those I have previously flagged, all of which fill me with sense of hope and optimism that our thinking is moving in the right direction.


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Find me elsewhere on the web at www.lukecraven.com, on Twitter @LukeCraven, on LinkedIn here, or by email at <luke.k.craven@gmail.com>.