Working Notes of a Practising Neo-Generalist (#21) — An artful explanation of the complicated and the complex
“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)
Today’s reality forces us to live in multiple worlds at the same time. One is characterized by ‘either/or’ thinking; the other by an ambiguous ‘both/and.’ The first traditional and familiar; the latter paradoxical and puzzling to most of us. But as so often, art can help us 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 these two worlds; between complexity and complicatedness.
Mondrian’s painting is abstract, unmistakable, rigidly structured. It is how most business leaders see the world: mechanical and linear.
Now try to find a single straight line or a central focal point in Pollocks’ painting. You simply won’t. But it offers countless possibilities to ‘connect the dots’; each just as good as the other.
Pollock’s reality is entangled, ambiguous, fluid. There is “no one answer that is right, but many answers that might work,” as Margaret J. Wheatley and Myron Kellner-Rogers write in A Simpler Way. It is also unmanageable, as Charles Handy explained at the 5th Global Peter Drucker Forum. What better way to describe the complex and interconnected environments in which companies and their leaders operate and compete?
In this complex, nonlinear world, there can be no step-by-step rulebook, no linear model, no simple antidote to uncertainty. Ideologies, theory and planning break down in the face of unpredictability, leaving us instead with an urgent mandate and multiple methods to explore. And for this, we need a curiosity for the things on and beyond the edges of our knowledge.