Sunday, January 22, 2006

Michael Crichton Offers 3-Part Roadmap to Conquer Complexity

Marketers take note: complexity is here.

Michael Crichton has raised a lot of questions about managing global complexity in his fictional “State of Fear.” His speech at the Washington Center for Complexity and Public Policy further explained the line of thinking that guided his research for the book. His conclusions on complex systems can help us all move to a model where we can more effectively manage the systems that operate in marketing departments and in our marketplaces.

He defines complexity:By a complex system I mean one in which the elements of the system interact among themselves, such that any modification we make to the system will produce results that we cannot predict in advance. We live in a world of complex systems. The environment is a complex system. The government is a complex system. Financial markets are complex systems. The human mind is a complex system---most minds, at least.”

There is danger in complexity.

“A complex system demonstrates sensitivity to initial conditions. You can get one result on one day, but the identical interaction the next day may yield a different result. We cannot know with certainty how the system will respond... when we interact with a complex system, we may provoke downstream consequences that emerge weeks or even years later. We must always be watchful for delayed and untoward consequences.”

“Organizations that care about the environment do not seem to notice that their ministrations are deleterious in many cases. Lawmakers do not seem to notice when their laws have unexpected consequences, or make things worse. Governors and mayors and managers may manage their complex systems well or badly, but if they manage well, it is usually because they have an instinctive understanding of how to deal with complex systems. Most managers fail."

Fortunately, Crichton points out, studies show that we can learn to manage complex systems. There are people who have investigated complex systems management, and know how to do it. But it demands humility and the ability to admit when we are wrong.

“The science that underlies our understanding of complex systems is now thirty years old. A third of a century should be plenty of time for this knowledge and to filter down to everyday consciousness, but except for slogans—like the butterfly flapping its wings and causing a hurricane halfway around the world—not much has penetrated ordinary human thinking.”

Crichton offers a roadmap to getting our arms around complexity and if we put these to work in our marketing information systems, our campaign systems, our CRM systems ... we can become better managers.

His first counsel is that we must avoid over-simplifying complexity. When we make this mistake, we come up with wrong answers.
Our human predisposition is to treat all systems as linear when they are not. A linear system is a rocket flying to Mars. Or a cannonball fired from a canon. Its behavior is quite easily described mathematically. A complex system is water gurgling over rocks, or air flowing over a bird’s wing … An important feature of complex systems is that we don’t know how they work. We don’t understand them except in a general way; we simply interact with them. Whenever we think we understand them, we learn we don’t. Sometimes spectacularly.

His second counsel is that we approach this task with humility and admit when we are wrong and to realize that we will be wrong more often than we are right.If you manage a complex system you will frequently, if not always, be wrong. You have to backtrack. You have to acknowledge error. You’ve probably learned that with your children. Or, if you don’t have children, with your bosses.”

His final admonition is to eliminate the tendency we all seem to have of using fear to galvanize those around us to follow our solution.Fear may draw a television audience. It may generate cash for an advocacy group. It may support the legal profession. But fear paralyzes us. It freezes us. And we need to be flexible in our responses, as we move into a new era of managing complexity. So we have to stop responding to fear.

Why is it important for us marketers to pay attention to Michael Crichton, or to any other experts who struggle with the implications of complexity? Because marketing is running far behind other aspects of business in understanding our own processes. Because we cannot manage something as complex as CRM without coming to grips with what we can do and what we cannot do before we become buried in complexity that smothers us. We must become expert at simplifying the complex processes we now have under our responsibility if we have any hope of improving results.


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