Working Notes of a Practising Neo-Generalist (#21) — An artful explanation of the complicated and the complex

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“In Hesse’s last piece, which she referred to as the ‘rope piece,’ knots are places of disconnection and of made connections; one could say these joinings are places of weakness. But that depends on whether one sees these knots as joining for the first time, or as a kind of repair. Hesse’s knots can only be both.” — Anne Michaels in Infinite Gradation. (Photograph: No Title, by Eva Hesse. Collection of the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York)

“If anyone can refute me — show me I’m making a mistake or looking at things from the wrong perspective — I’ll gladly change. It’s the truth I’m after, and the truth never harmed anyone. What harms us is to persist in self-deceit and ignorance.” — Marcus Aurelius in Meditations, Book 6:21 (Gregory Hays, The Modern Library, New York)

An artful explanation of the complicated and the complex

Today’s complexity forces us to live in multiple worlds at the same time — one characterized by ‘either/or’ thinking; the other by the ambiguous ‘both/and.’ The first traditional and familiar; the latter paradoxical and alien to most of us. As so often, art can help us better understand.

Putting Piet Mondrian’s ‘Composition with Large Red Plane, Yellow, Black, Gray, and Blue’ (1921) next to Jackson Pollock’s ‘Number 14: Gray’ (1948) creates an artful way to illustrate the profound differences between the complex and the complicated.

Mondrian’s painting is rigidly structured, comprehensible and predictable. It is how most business leaders see the world: mechanical and linear.

Composition with Large Red Plane, Yellow, Black, Gray, and Blue, by Piet Mondrian (1921).

Now try to find a single straight line or a central focal point in the painting by Pollock. You simply won’t. But it offers countless possibilities to ‘connect the dots’; each just as good as the other. It is also, as Charles Handy explains at the 5th Global Peter Drucker Forum, “unmanageable.” There is only one way to find out what works: explore and experiment.

Number 14: Gray, by Jackson Pollock (1948).

What better way to describe the complex and interconnected environments in which companies and their leaders operate and compete?

But we won’t be able to understand complexity unless we spend more time in ‘not knowing.’ Unfortunately, we aren’t educated to ‘not know.’ Most of us were taught to be certain and confident; to state our opinion as if it were true. We haven’t been rewarded for being confused. Or for asking more questions rather than giving quick answers.

What we need to understand complexity is curiosity; a curiosity for the things on and beyond the edges of our knowledge.

If you want to know more about my work with senior executives and leadership teams, please visit You can also browse through my writings or follow me on Twitter.

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helping leaders navigate complexity with confidence & clarity of thought | varius multiplex multiformis

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