Teaching and Complexity

In my previous post, I described the “complexity barrier” that makes certain types of teaching ineffective (unless, of course, it’s just me).  I then asked what could we do about it?

As a teacher, I believe that one of the key parameters in training a student to do complex things is to allow for continual course corrections.  Define small, meaningful steps that require the student to begin to reason his or her way through the “fog of complexity.”  Let them experience the unknowns; that will prompt the important questions. Let them struggle to make sense of the complexity; that will promote a healthy humility.  This is what truly prepares them to learn.

Then, have them talk through the experience, engage in dialogue to refine their understanding, reinforce their successes, and reflect on the challenges that remain.

It’s best done one-on-one or in a combination of one-on-one discussions and very small group discussions.  It’s seminar style learning, in one sense; but it’s also coaching and mentoring and personal instruction.

I’ve concluded that the goals I’ve set for certain courses cannot be achieved in the typical course environment of the day.  They cannot be achieved by reading a book and taking a test.  They cannot be achieved by working in teams.  They cannot be achieved by watching short videos.  They cannot be achieved without the student taking risks and making mistakes.  They cannot be achieved if the student is not passionate about the subject area.  They cannot be achieved if the goal is merely to obtain a degree.  And they cannot be achieved without mutual trust and respect.

Within industry, this kind of transformational learning is fairly well understood (though perhaps not practiced as much as it had been at one time).  I’ve experienced it at its best.  I know what’s possible.  But, as an instructor, I simply don’t see how we can replicate that without major changes in priorities and approaches.

So, I share that opinion with you.

The Complexity Barrier

Be forewarned, I’m going to speak bluntly in this post.  I’m not trying to hurt anyone’s feelings; I just want to make a point.

There’s an interesting phenomenon I’ve encountered the last few times I’ve taught a certain course.  I’ve given the students a poorly-defined problem with minimal guidance on what I’m looking for and then have asked them to build an organization and a process to solve the problem and then bring me a solution.

Do you know what I get?

I get a project management structure – because, I believe, that’s the only way they know how to organize themselves.

I get requests for more information, even though I’m the one asking them for more information.

And I get unhappy students.

Do you know what I wanted to get?

I wanted to see them self-organize into, essentially, an R&D structure.  I wanted to see discipline, confidence, critical thinking, logical analysis, exploration of the unknown, trial and error, testing, discovery.

What happened?  I think there’s a barrier, what I’ll call a complexity barrier, at which our students falter.  They expect to be given sufficient information to solve the problem and they assume that what they need to do is work together as a team to apply the information to solve that problem.  I also think they perceive the purpose of a team to be an opportunity to learn to work in teams.  But I want explorers… teams of explorers.  Not explorers who are learning to work in teams.

Results count.  Teamwork does not count unless the teamwork produces results.  Teamwork is not a goal, it’s a method.

But, back to the complexity barrier, I think many of them don’t know what to do when confronted with a problem that appears too complex because of the quantity of unknowns.  They balk at that.  They fear failure (i.e., not getting an “A”).  They give up.  They shouldn’t, but they do, because we’re not teaching the right mindset.  We teach them to do simple things and we teach them to do complicated things, but when we push them to do truly complex things – things with many unknowns and not easily discernible rules and no clear definition of success – they don’t see a way forward, they begin to contemplate failure, and they either stop or they just go through the motions.

So how can we fix this?

Leadership in a Complex Environment

I recently gave a short lecture on the challenges of managing in a complex environment.  To be successful, there are four fundamental building blocks that must be established early on across the organization.  You have to build the right culture; everyone on the team needs to understand that there are certain expectations that go along with being a member of the team.  You have to execute with precision; everyone has to be willing and able to perform their tasks (so motivation and preparation matter).  There has to be accountability; this is the follow up to setting expectations.  And there has to be thoughtful, meaningful, and respectful dialogue at all levels.

Complexity is a kind of filter.  It makes it harder to be successful.  It demands the very best you can deliver 100% of the time.  Leading in a complex environment begins with the basic framework I have described.

Managing Complexity
Leading in a Complex Environment

10 Practical Ways to Manage Complexity

Managing complexity is one of the central themes in my systems engineering course.  In one of my lectures, I offer ten practical suggestions for managing complexity.  The list isn’t exhaustive, but these ten ideas usually provoke some interesting discussions.

  1. Improve Communications
  2. Verify and Document Assumptions
  3. Instill a Culture of Thoroughness
  4. Simplify Where You Can
  5. Establish Quality Assurance Processes
  6. Manage Risks with Accountability
  7. Understand the Value and Risk of Decomposition
  8. Understand the Value and Risk of Abstraction
  9. Exploit the Use of Hierarchy
  10. Maintain a Systems Perspective



Good Book – “Complexity: A Guided Tour” by Melanie Mitchell

For any of my students looking for an introduction to “complexity,” I recommend Complexity – A Guided Tour by systems scientist Melanie Mitchell.  I pulled it off my shelf this morning to re-read Chapter 19, “The Past and Future of the Sciences of Complexity.”

Dr. Mitchell’s Ph.D. advisor was Dr. Douglas Hofstadter, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning classic Godel, Escher, and Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid.  For a thought-provoking interview with Dr. Hofstadter, see the following interview in The Atlantic magazine: