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Insights, inspiration and opportunities to create a more vibrant and resilient future.

What does social complexity even mean?

Lyndon Valicenti

Have you ever noticed how so many work-related (and home-related, for that matter) challenges come down to miscommunication or differences of perspective? Well, as systemic designers, we like to call that "social complexity" and explicitly design for it in our practice. But what does social complexity even really mean?

In his book, Wicked Problems & Social Complexity, Jeff Conklin articulates the forces that inhibit our ability to tackle shared, complex problems in a collaborative and effective way. Starting with the idea of fragmentation, often referred to as “silos,” Conklin states:

"The concept of fragmentation provides a name and an image for a phenomenon that pulls apart something which is potentially whole. Fragmentation suggests a condition in which the people involved see themselves as more separate than united, and in which information and knowledge are chaotic and scattered. The fragmented pieces are, in essence, the perspectives, understandings, and intentions of the collaborators. Fragmentation, for example, is when the stakeholders in a project are all convinced that their version of the problem is correct. Fragmentation can be hidden, as when stakeholders don’t even realize that there are incompatible tacit assumptions about the problem, and each believes that his or her understandings are complete and shared by all. The antidote to fragmentation is shared understanding and shared commitment."

Two forces of fragmentation are the (1) wickedness (or complexity) of the problem itself, and (2) social complexity, given the number and diversity of players (stakeholders) who are involved in addressing the problem.

“The more parties involved in a collaboration, the more socially complex. The more different those parties are, the more diverse, the more socially complex. The fragmenting force of social complexity can make effective communication very difficult. Social complexity requires new understandings, processes, and tools that are attuned to the fundamentally social and conversational nature of work,” Conklin goes on to say.

In our own work on these type of problems, and building on Conklin’s definition, Foresight describes social complexity as the diversity of and relationships between stakeholders with diverse perspectives and understandings, due to experience, education, professional focus, or position within the system.

Looking to the disciplines of adaptive leadership and change management, we might also consider the personal values, loyalties, and fear of loss as subconsciously contributing to social complexity.

All of this is to say, if you find it difficult to catalyze transformative change, or even build consensus on incremental change, it is most likely because individuals, organizations, and social systems are complex. To be effective change makers, we must learn to be more empathetic, patient, open minded, conflict-tolerant listeners, communicators, and facilitators.