In his book, Team of Teams, General Stanley McChrystal defines the difference between complicated environments and complex ones. Complicated environments have many different moving parts, but are ultimately deterministic – in other words, predictable. If you put in the same inputs, you get the same outputs. Think of a mechanical watch. It has many moving parts, but as long as it works properly, it will produce a very consistent and predictable output. If it breaks down, you call a subject matter expert, in this case a watchmaker, who repairs it back to predictable outcomes.

It’s not so straightforward with a complex environment. The pieces of complex environments are highly interdependent, non-linear, and ultimately unpredictable. If it doesn’t work as expected, there is no expert to call, since nothing is clearly broken. Think of the break in a game of pool. Even if we know the locations of the balls, the angle of the cue stick and the force of the strike, there are too many variables to be able to calculate where all the balls will go. Small changes in input lead to large changes in output. It is, in effect, unpredictable. Reality falls in this category.

Not only is the world complex, but your ability to process it is hindered by “cognitive biases” which are a set of mental errors built into our brain. These had an evolutionary advantage at some point, but prompt you to incorrectly lean towards some outcomes, while overlooking others. Sometimes, you won’t see it coming.

So what should we do?

First, spend some time learning about the human brain and influence. Learn about cognitive biases and how they affect a person’s thinking. This is particularly important in a situation where you are being influenced by others (think shopping, politics, etc). Remember that your reality is actively being shaped by someone else. You want to be aware of when and how that is happening.

When you understand how the input is coming in, the next thing is to get better at figuring out what happens next. An easy way to do that is to build a set of “mental models” that can help you find a more likely outcome in various situations that others may miss. An example is the concept of “regression to the mean”, which basically says that large deviations are often anomalous and future results will come back to the mean (i.e. average) results. A simple example is that tall people will have shorter kids, while short people, on average, will have taller kids – in effect bringing the average height closer to the mean. While this is clearly not true in all situations, it provides a quick and simple mental model you can use to create a probable outcome in many situations.

Even with an understanding of how the brain works and a good collection of mental models, you should anticipate unexpected outcomes. How to prepare for that type of world? Focus on resiliency and anti-fragility – the ability to survive, and even thrive, through unpredictable change. The less you “need” to be a certain way and the more options you have for what you consider “successful”, the greater resiliency you have.

So in summary, remember:
  • Reality is subjective (accept there are other viewpoints that are just as “real”)
  • Understand influence and how a human brain works to be aware of when your reality is being shaped by others
  • Learn to think in probabilities, building a set of mental models to help you do so
  • Build resiliency (lower your “needs”, widen your success criteria) since the unexpected will happen eventually

While there are no guarantees, if you start to think this way, you’ll find yourself much better prepared for whatever the future may throw at you.

Good luck!