Self Help with Complexity

Malcolm Ryder
4 min readMar 6, 2023

So much of what is written about dealing with complexity tends to fall towards the “entertaining mystery” (scientific awe) end of a spectrum or towards the opposite direction, the psychotherapy (mental health) end. Awe lets us off the hook; and mental health helps us be productive.

Both are interesting and even visceral stories, but their willful disregard of the more substantial ways to “manage through” complexity makes their popularity curious-to-suspicious.

Three things routinely left out of those discussions are: Strategy; Architecture; and Education.

  • Strategy: which explains why the presumed future dynamics are logical
  • Architecture: which explains why the proposed interconnections are functional
  • Education: which explains which given factors are relevant and why

Instead, there is a fascination with the heat-of-the-moment experience of complexity as had by persons who feel that they lack either the awareness or opportunity to immediately be “effective” under pressure. Why is this fascination so persistent?

Part of that pressure can of course be attributed to the circumstances that support the person’s keeping their job — the position one possesses in which the responsibility and benefit both depend on satisfying someone else’s idea of “success” (whether we agree with them or not). But in that case, the discussion is not actually about how to act on complexity — it’s about how to meet a performance criterion. Rewards and penalties are compelling ideas.

Step away from the performance pressure, and the remaining problem is the real one: what is a reliable method of determining how to produce a real-time benefit within the challenge that complexity poses?

If the incidental scenario of the real-time effort is that strategy, architecture and education are missing, then the methodological answer is simple: go get them and make them a part of the activity. What justification is there for leaving them out? All three are practices literally cultivated to make rationally beneficial choices, based on awareness of interconnections, from among an array of options, whether with or without uncertainty.

Now the issue in this article is NOT about an imaginary world of unlimited resources somehow becoming “real”... The issue here is twofold: one, not trying to get them; and two, advising as if they aren’t even necessary or don’t exist.

So again, let’s set focus: complexity can explain why “performance” might circumstantially be really difficult. But performance management does not “explain” complexity.

The below is not a “complexity theory”. It is a cognitive framework of currently perceived challenge in a problem solving effort, regardless of what the problem is. The diagram literally shows that challenge has at least four possible faces. And (attention Design Thinkers) a single “given” Problem can have (can “pose”) one or more different kinds of challenges, concurrently — each respective challenge being like one of these types below, regardless of what the other challenges are like.

© Malcolm Ryder, Archestra Research. Do NOT confuse this with “Cynefin”. Don’t let the squiggly lines fool you.

This next picture is a Value framework of available solution approaches in problem management. Cross referenced with the above, the domain (not the source) of the difficulty it describes is always “the diverse coincidence of necessary knowns”…


Now, there is no reason why those two illustrations should be merged into one illustration. (But just for the compulsive among us, if you try to do that, just drop the entire second diagram into the upper left quadrant of the first one. Done!)

What is more interesting, instead, and more to the point as well, is the possibility that something like the below is employed as a reference. The use of it is for deciding a solution scope given the encounter with a problem’s complexity.

Is there a situational opportunity to:

  • use discovery to progress from chaotic to complicated
  • use validation to progress from complicated to complex
  • use prioritization to progress from complex to simple
© Malcolm Ryder, Archestra Research. Do NOT confuse this with “Cynefin”. Don’t let the squiggly lines fool you.

And the point of it is that, with a directional similarity to the above that is NOT coincidental:

  • education supports architecture,
  • architecture supports strategy,
  • and strategy supports beneficial impact.
from chaotic to complicated to complex to simple

The presumption here is that neither awe nor mental health in the face of complexity will lessen in interest, but that actually understanding complexity is, well, just better.



Malcolm Ryder

Malcolm is a strategist, solution developer and knowledge management professional in both profit and non-profit companies across business, IT and the arts.