We seem to understand complexity in life – why can we not in our work?

When watching one of my favourite TV series I was reminded that in life we can recognise and navigate complexity and uncertainty. When we enter into relationships, get married, have kids, we face lots of uncertainties. Is it the right partner for us? How do I want to raise my kids so they can make the most of their lives? These are questions no-one can answer with any amount of certainty – no quantitative objectives or milestones are fixed. Yet, we still manage to make decisions by using a mix of logical argument and a good portion of intuition. In the end, there are no right answers and we will deal with the consequences of our decisions once we can sense them. We continuously work on our relationships to improve them or in the worst case split up. We navigate the uncertainties of raising children and they grow up eventually. While this approach is natural and works well in our lives, we somehow refuse to buy into it for most aspects in our work. There, we try to find certainty, hypothesise linear causal relationships that allow for plans with milestones and outcomes. When applying this thinking to a complex problem like organising a children’s party it sounds ridiculous and we laugh about it. But we still use the same logic when we try to improve the workings of an economy or a market, when trying to change the behaviour of companies and poor people, or even when trying to improve the empowerment of women in business. Nobody laughs there.

I have to out myself here as Trekkie, as this blog post is inspired by an episode of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. My wife and I recently, when flipping through the Netflix catalogue, for fun started to rewatch the first episode of the series, called ‘the Emissary’. In it, we learn about the journey of Benjamin Sisko from being the first officer on the USS Saratoga, where he lost his wife in a battle with the Borg, to becoming the commander of the new Federation outpost Deep Space 9 and the Emissary of the Prophets of Bajor.

Anyway, long story short, the first time Sisko comes in contact with the Prophets, who are non-corporal beings without an understanding of linear time, he tries to explain to them human existence – and why humans were no threat to the Prophets. The Prophets thereby visualise themselves to Sisko in scenes taken from his own memories, embodying people that are part of these memories. The passage that struck me was when they were on an imaginary baseball field taken from Sisko’s memory and Sisko tried to explain the game to them (I highlighted the passage that triggered this blog post):

BATSMAN: Aggressive. Adversarial. [One of the Prophets accusing Sisko]
SISKO: Competition. For fun. It’s a game that Jake [Sisko’s son] and I play on the holodeck. It’s called baseball.
JAKE: Baseball? What is this?
SISKO: I was afraid you’d ask that. I throw this ball to you and this other player stands between us with a bat, a stick, and he, and he tries to hit the ball in between these two white lines. No. The rules aren’t important. What’s important is, it’s linear. Every time I throw this ball, a hundred different things can happen in a game. He might swing and miss, he might hit it. The point is, you never know. You try to anticipate, set a strategy for all the possibilities as best you can, but in the end it comes down to throwing one pitch after another and seeing what happens. With each new consequence, the game begins to take shape.
BATSMAN: And you have no idea what that shape is until it is completed.
SISKO: That’s right. In fact, the game wouldn’t be worth playing if we knew what was going to happen.
JAKE: You value your ignorance of what is to come?
SISKO: That may be the most important thing to understand about humans. It is the unknown that defines our existence. We are constantly searching, not just for answers to our questions, but for new questions. We are explorers. We explore our lives, day by day, and we explore the galaxy, trying to expand the boundaries of our knowledge. And that is why I am here. Not to conquer you either with weapons or with ideas, but to co-exist and learn.

Earlier in the episode, there was an interesting passage, when Sisko, again, tries to explain how we experience linear time:

[Saratoga Bridge]
CONN OFFICER: Your linear nature is inherently destructive.
OPS OFFICER: You have no regard for the consequences of your acts.
SISKO: That’s not true. We’re aware that every choice we make has a consequence.
CAPTAIN: But you claim you do not know what it will be.
SISKO: We don’t.

[Fishing pond]
JAKE: Then how can you take responsibility for your actions?
SISKO: We use past experience to help guide us. For Jennifer [Sisko’s wife] and me, all the experiences in our lives prepared us for the day we met on the beach, helped us recognize that we had a future together. When we married, we accepted all the consequences of that act, whatever they might be, including the consequences of you
JAKE: Me?
SISKO: My son, Jake.

Even though this comes from a science fiction TV series, these few lines really struck a chord with me. I think all of us can buy into them, really, as it does not matter if they are spoken in a wormhole in between the Bajor sector and the Gamma Quadrant or here on earth in any other story. In some parts of our lives we accept complexity, unpredictability, non-linearity and we have developed a way to deal with it. Yet in other areas, that are equally complex, we struggle with the idea not to be able to plan for specific quantitative targets or give up control of what exactly the consequences of an intervention will be.

Transcripts of the episode from http://chakoteya.net/DS9/401.htm

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