A few years ago, I accidentally created a model of complexity and decision-making. To make matters worse, I didn’t notice what I was doing at the time, and this strained some of my relationships with some extremely intelligent people who I respect a great deal. The model I invented looks like this:

Four interlocked circles labeled “Simple, Complicated, Complex and Chaotic”.
The Samsara model

If you’ve seen or heard of the Cynefin model, there is an obvious similarity. And if you have a superficial understanding of the Cynefin model (as I did at the time, and still do), then it’s very tempting to say “That’s Cynefin, just drawn differently.”

It gets worse than that, because the similarities don’t stop there:

Simple (aka ‘obvious’): This is the realm of ‘best practice’ and of expertise. When a problem is simple, there is a known best solution, and the course of action is to apply the known best solution.

Complicated: This is the realm where many well-understood things fit together in well-understood ways. When a problem is complicated, the course of action is to analyze the problem, calculate the optimal solution and then apply the optimal solution.

Complex: When partly-understood things fit together in partly-understood ways, the course of action is to test what we think we understand, and to adjust what we are doing as rapidly as is feasible so that we take advantage of the things we are learning.

Chaotic: When we are completely unable to make any sense of the situation, we do something (it doesn’t really matter what) and the situation will start to take a shape and then we can start to make sense of it.

There’s also a critically important difference between Cynefin and Samsara, which is that in Cynefin there are gaps between the domains, and a label called ‘disorder’ that never really made sense to me. In Samsara, there are overlapping portions of the realms that imply an opportunity to transcend realm-bound thought. Dave Snowden has written an excellent essay addressing failures to understand Cynefin that he has observed in social media, and it concludes beautifully: “At is heart Cynefin is about how things are, how we know things and how we perceive things.” Samsara is about how we perceive things, how we invent things, and how things might be. Cynefin seems to try to find the truth. Samsara treats “The truth is unknowable” as the first principle, then examines our perceptions through that lens.

I use the word Samsara in a modern, Buddhist sense: here is an explanation by Paul Williams: “short of attaining enlightenment, in each rebirth one is born and dies, to be reborn elsewhere in accordance with the completely impersonal causal nature of one’s own karma; This endless cycle of birth, rebirth, and redeath is Saṃsāra.” I am not, however, referring to the rebirth of the body; this model called Samsara is concerned with the rebirth of the mind.

Consider a house fire. If my oven were to suddenly explode, then my experience would be one that is quite chaotic. It’s very likely that I would go into shock for a moment, and then flee the house. Would I remember to take my phone with me so that I could call the fire brigade? What about the safety of the other inhabitants, or of my neighbors? I couldn’t say with confidence that I would have the presence of mind to do the right thing. But for the fire brigade when they receive the call? I imagine the matter would be a relatively simple one where they follow well-established procedures. Complexity might emerge if they have to make decisions about who to rescue first. A mechanical failure in their vehicle could well make things complicated.

Consider a prominent politician, for whom every problem is simple: the answer to everything in life is “Get the best deal you can get.” Should we be surprised when such a person dismisses scientists who claim that some issues are highly complex?

Personally, I have a long-standing tendency to assume that every problem is complicated. If only I knew how things actually fit together, then I could come up with a perfect plan. (My obsession with this is something I never truly understood until I started talking to Andrey Chernyshev; watch this space.) It was only when I encountered Daoist philosophy (which offers a complicated explanation for the existence of complex phenomena) that I started to learn how to cope with complexity.

The Samsara model won’t tell you how to fix a problem. It predicts problem-solving behaviour, based on a person’s perception of the problem (and it infers perceptions, based on behaviour). It also describes how perceptions of problems change (in ways that are eerily similar to Cynefin).

If I’m sitting happily at my computer, typing an essay (having a very simple physical existence) and my oven suddenly explodes, then I’m plunged into chaos. The transition from Simple to Chaotic is similar to falling from a great height. Similarly, we can look at efforts to take something from the Complex domain into the Complicated domain, and observe that a lot of energy and difficulty is involved in that process. (Here’s another great Snowden essay.)

And yet, for all that something might be extremly complicated and complex, it might also be quite simple. Consider the statement “We can expect any generally artifically intelligent agents that we create to display this kind of behaviour [resource accumulation], unless we can specifically design them not to.” (Robert Miles is doing some brilliant work making AI theory accessible.) It’s a Simple statement, with very Complex and Complicated implications. And maybe I’ve misclassified those implications.

But wait a minute: Complex and Complicated? How can a problem live in both spaces at once? As a front-end software developer, I spent most of my time dealing with problems that were simultaneously complex and complicated. One that I’m particularly proud of is the appointment booking system I built for Medipak in 1999.

Tony Bailey had a powerful, simple-looking vision for the appointment system: “You should be able to use it like a piece of paper.” I spent a lot of time building a very complex machinery: “When the user presses the down arrow on the keyboard, the keystroke must be processed by the currently selected appointment column, while the scroll pane should take into account the position of the newly-selected timeslot and ensure that the timeslot is completely in view by adjusting the Y coordinate.” But I also spent a lot of time dealing with complex questions like “How will people actually use this system? What does ‘like a piece of paper’ mean?”

In the Samsara model, it is an error to say “This problem is complicated.” In Samsara, it is better to say “We have a complicated view of this problem.” With a Buddhist viewpoint that accepts Samsara as inherent to human existence, I do not guard against the possibility that I am wrong: I accept and manage the inevitability of my wrongness. If I can calm my mind, I can see how every problem is simultaneously simple and complicated and complex and chaotic, depending on how the problem is framed. I can look for framings that are oriented towards the things I want, and set aside framings that are meaningfully incompatible with the facts.

To the extent that I understand the Cynefin model, it’s a model where problems move from one place to another, and it’s really useful for solving problems. To the extent that I understand the Samsara model, it’s a model where people’s perceptions move from one place to another, and I hope it’s useful for solving people.

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