Simplicity and Complexity

The top drawing suggests there is complexity to the journey from A to B. That journey requires numerous loop backs before moving forward and takes the traveler up and down and back and forth along the way until the destination is reached. Who knows the reasons why the journey was somewhat unpredictable or if there were side trips that were either necessary or just taken out of curiosity.

I have taken journeys like that one and some were enjoyable. (I was once drove half way from Edmonton to Vancouver taking dirt roads through farmland and forests and loved it.) But sometimes the complexity represented in a diagram like the one above is caused by necessary diversions, distractions, or even arguments about which way is the best way to go. In other words, sometimes complexity is a good thing. It factors in different view points and it allows us to see more scenery along the way, perhaps learn more as well.

But sometimes getting from A to B can be quite simple and straightforward. Could be we need to get there as soon as possible. Could be the straight path is the safest path to take or more economical. Maybe there is some correlation between having a sense of urgency and getting to where we want to be as completely and as quickly as possible.

The reasons abound if we really think about it – for both scenarios.

Complexity and simplicity are not at odds are they? They just offer us a different perspective, offer options that perhaps the other doesn’t.

 

Maybe there are simple solutions to complex problems.

There appears to be a common perception among some thought leaders that complex problems require complex solutions. I am not arguing against that perspective except to ask, if it is always true? In my early life as a consultant to non-profit organizations I was involved in developing software, databases primarily, that were purposed to help organizations collect, analyze, and report on their work. Without exception the work these organizations were doing was addressing complex problems like exclusion, poverty, mental illness, and so on.

I remember one time when we were coding the database, we discovered that the entire database did not work. Not just parts of it but all of it. I tried every which way to identify why this was happening. An earlier version worked fine, but now after adding copious amounts of code, nada.

Code is complex in and of itself but even more so when code must work with other code. In other words, a good coder has to understand how to use the development language but also needs to understand how that language interacts with itself across patterns or clusters of code.

After literally days of trying to figure out what was wrong, I finally identified the problem. I had forgotten a period in one line of code and that small mistake stopped everything. The solution was laborious to locate but it was a simple one. Add the period and voila, all was as we intended.

Maybe there is a lesson here for us in terms of our design of programs and services or collaborative ventures. Maybe our policies or systems that exist to solve complex challenges do not always need to be scrapped or undergo a major rethink. Maybe sometimes, within what we currently have before us, there is a small, simple change that will in turn change everything.

What do you think?

Thinking about the Charity Model and Systems Change Debate

There has been a movement afoot for the past 15 to 20 years that evolved out of a growing dissatisfaction with the charitable sector or more to the point, the Charity Model. Critics of the sector are nothing new, of course. And these criticisms are often based on unproven perceptions (e.g. there are too many charities), biases people have toward “the needy” (e.g. I made it through hell, so can you), and some that still boggle my mind like, non-profits need to be more business-like.

But the conversations I am talking about have gone further than that and very often have been initiated and led by well-respected non-profit sector leaders tired of seeing good work (or what they saw as good work) not really moving the needle of big change. The impact, they say, just hasn’t been good enough, which has evolved into concluding that the so called Charity Model has failed us all.

What I find interesting and somewhat unnerving is that this thing we call the Charity Model is in effect a descriptor of organized helping; it is not and I suggest never has been an actual model in the manner that we tend to think of models or frameworks.  Usually a model has an author or set of authors and has an intended purpose, and governs or guides how you do something. I am not aware of anyone who authored the Charity Model. As a term it represents our attempt to put meaning to what the charitable sector does and why, though we tend to spend less time on the latter.

My sense is that the Charity Model is about our desire to capture and understand how the organized expression of love or kindness is implemented through institutions and systems. It is a term that offers differentiation from the private and government sectors. How that expression is organized is certainly worthy of review and adjustment, if not significant change, but my struggle with the direction many are taking is that charity has become something sector leaders want to move away from while replacing it with something better. Continue reading

Signals of Coming Disruption

Big change doesn’t just click on. It occurs over time, starting out often as weak signals of the change to come. Sometimes it’s like the old frog in the boiling water story. Put the frog in when the water is cool and turn up the flame and eventually the frog realizes its plight, just too late to adjust, to escape.

For years, donor giving has been changing. Charities have become increasingly dependent on larger gifts from fewer donors. As the economy has served to increase the income and wealth gap between the small numbers of wealthy and the rest of everyone else, we have seen food bank use escalate and a growing number of workers living pay check to pay check. Job security is no longer a reasonable expectation for a growing number of people, much less the chance for advancement. Employee supported pensions are no longer the norm and health and dental benefits are harder to come by for low income workers and many who do not yet qualify as “low income” workforce members.

imagenoise_signalmlab2The adaptations charities have taken have been focused on how to grow revenues through different sources of revenues. Funders are looking at alternatives too, given their inability to fund all the good things that come their way. Crowdfunding, social enterprise, impact investing, social purpose businesses are among the more recent options in financing social good.

GDP growth has been slowing, 80% of Canadian incomes are not increasing or if they are, at far less a rate, the restructuring of the job market is creating more insecure and benefit-less employment. the ratio of workers to seniors is dramatically decreasing. Key drivers like oil prices are in turmoil. Consumer debt keeps increasing. The numbers of people making $15 or less are growing as businesses work harder to cut back on expenses in order to feed more profits to investors. Continue reading

Leanings toward heresy

Complex and Simple
By acknowledging that societal issues and solutions are complex, do we then believe complex solutions are the only options? Is it true that a complex issue cannot have a simple solution?

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Data
Data is neither good nor bad. It offers no explanation and on its own cannot provide a definitive sense of progress or under performance. We determine such judgement by holding pieces of data in comparison to one another. We are selective. We have to be, but what we select is also always about what we do not select.  I suggest that is what we do not select that is often the real culprit when it comes to spin.

Sometimes our love of data is not as strong as our love of data that affirms us.

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Understanding
Understanding is not agreement or disagreement. Mutual understanding about an issue or a condition or a model is not strategic alignment. We move too quickly toward strategy without understanding one another, which results in positional arguments based primarily on one’s interests, biases, experiences, and individual perspective pitted against another’s. I am not saying that taking positions is avoidable or even should be. I am wondering what position-based exchanges might look like if those holding opposing or conflicting positions actually did so from a foundation of understanding one another.

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Models
Models are not plans or prescriptions, far less recipes. They are organized ideas gathered into a structure that the modelers put forward based on research, evidence, best and emerging practice and their own ingenuity. They are not meant to be followed as much as they are offered to you as consideration. They are well articulated suggestions that are not intended to be followed in a rote manner.

All models are imperfect. Their genius is revealed in how you use them to build your purpose and the work necessary to fulfill intent. In other words, you are the genius of a model, unless of course you fall short of your expectations.

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