Thursday, July 18, 2024

Is ‘Complexity’ really that complicated?

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DIPLOMAT MAGAZINE “For diplomats, by diplomats” Reaching out the world from the European Union First diplomatic publication based in The Netherlands. Founded by members of the diplomatic corps on June 19th, 2013. "Diplomat Magazine is inspiring diplomats, civil servants and academics to contribute to a free flow of ideas through an extremely rich diplomatic life, full of exclusive events and cultural exchanges, as well as by exposing profound ideas and political debates in our printed and online editions." Dr. Mayelinne De Lara, Publisher

“Our work calls for more telephone, less megaphone.”

By Eelco H. Dykstra, M.D.

After a few years of mission-critical assignments elsewhere, Eelco H. Dykstra resumes his acclaimed column “A Thought and a Smile…”.

This statement is from an interview I had with the (then) EU Ambassador to the United States, HE John Bruton, former Prime Minister of Ireland (Taoiseach), who recently died at the age of 76. John was not only known for his knowledge, experience and wisdom but also for his sense of humour and his ‘gift of the gab’ that made him an excellent communicator.    

During our discussions we also touched on the topic for this column: the difference between ‘complexity’ and ‘complicated’.  We discussed how some people use the words ‘complex’ and ‘complicated ‘ as if they were synonyms. We both disagreed with this practice – for the simple reason that they are not. 

When people say “It is complex”, they often mean “(many) different things need to be considered at the same time”. The underlying message is that complexity makes any issue perhaps more difficult, but not impossible.   

When people say: “It is complicated”, they often mean “(many) different things are needed that we don’t have or see the need for”. The underlying message being that when an issue is complicated, it can be ignored, denied or left for others to do.   

When looking closer at the difference between ‘complexity’ and ‘complicated’, we might first have to agree on what it is that makes something ‘complex’.

Is something complex because it requires us to think about (how to do) different things all at the same time? When so, then driving a car, playing a musical instrument, making love and riding a bike are complex. But are they complicated? At first sight, without the benefit of prior knowledge or experience, these kinds of activities may seem daunting. Once mastered however, they become enjoyable and in hindsight,  remarkably simple.

From this, it follows that the recipe for mastering ‘complexity’ includes the following basic ingredients:

  • Learning/Lessons Learned

I think we can all agree that learning and implementing lessons learned are key to mastering ‘complexity’  and not fall  victim to the indifference and inertia that is associated with referring to complex issues as ‘(too) complicated’. People like Socrates, Plato and Aristotle insisted that we learn from the three sources of Books[1], Mentors and Practice/Experience. When we follow them, we enter the realm of ‘wisdom’.  

  • “Wisdom”

Wisdom is often defined as the product of knowledge and experience. What people not always realize is that learning by ‘mentoring’ requires building trust and personal relationships while gaining  ‘experience’ takes time.

Might this be what John Bruton meant with ‘telephone’?

Younger generations seem to confuse ‘wisdom’ with “having access to data”. Data or information from algorithms, chatbots, virtual assistants, delivered loudly, simply and quickly to satisfy the need for instant gratification.

Might this be what John Bruton meant with ‘megaphone’?

  • Prioritizing

Perhaps the simplest way to ensure that complexity doesn’t become complicated is knowing where to start. Once we break down complex issues into smaller parts and prioritize them, they are not complicated anymore.

Well, you may ask: what has all this to do with Diplomacy and Diplomats?

Imagine yourself walking in a forest. You notice quite a few people standing in front of trees looking attentively at the bark. You’re curious so you walk over to them, introduce yourself and ask what they are doing.  “We’re here to guard the forest” is the answer you get from all of them. You scratch your head and think: how can they guard the forest when all they see is a single tree? Your next thought is: how can I convince these people to take a few steps back so they can see the bigger picture?

You are right. John Bruton was right.

Complexity doesn’t have to be complicated.

As long as we can see the forest through the trees.    


[1] Nowadays we might say ‘information’ or ‘google it…’


About the author:

Eelco H. Dykstra. Photography by Tom Manning

Once dubbed a ‘Global Nomad’ in East Africa, Eelco H. Dykstra is a seasoned international crisis and emergency expert. As a true ‘Prac-Ademic’, he blends – also in his column “A Thought and a Smile” – his innate optimism with knowledge from his practical experience and rigorous fact-finding. 

Aside from being founder/chair of the Daily Impact Emergency Management (DIEM) network and a visiting professor in South Africa, he initiated the ’20/20 Vision’ program for the dual purpose of strengthening value-based resilience and overcoming the obstacles that stand in the way of implementing lessons (to  be) learned. Eelco has been a correspondent, written multiple books and articles and continues to work extensively with media, government, business, NGO’s and community-based initiatives. In short, Eelco is a transdisciplinary and trans-cultural multi-tasker – just like diplomats are.

Among his hobbies are cooking and playing the cello – see picture, taken by Tom Manning, during an impromptu performance with the Soweto Youth Orchestra.

Eelco H. Dykstra Professor (visiting), Adaptation and Resilience, University of South-Africa, UNISA. Chair, ’20/20 Vision’ Program: How do we go from ‘Risk’ to ‘Resilience”? Founder, Daily Impact Emergency Management (DIEM) Network 
www.diem.nu  www.20outof20.vision

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