Moving towards your goal in a complex environment

In my Complexity and Go talk, I use the analogy of Inline Hockey to make my point about the difference between the words "Management" and "Control" in a complex environment.

Some of you know I started coaching Inline Hockey to be more involved with my son's chosen sport. It has become a passion and I love helping the kids (U14s, and some other Jnr teams) to develop in to their full potential, both personally and as a team.

At high levels of the sport, if you were to video and study the movement of the puck as it moves forward toward the goal you would notice something. Far from travelling in a straight line, or even a zig-zag, it follows quite an erratic path. Not only do the opposition players get a stick to it, it also bounces off players skates, the boards, assorted other body parts, the Ref's skates and from time to time, the player's own stick.

Isn't this a problem? Surely more control is better? Simple maths says a straight line along would get you to your goal faster right?


Part of the problem with those statements is that simple (Newtonian) maths doesn't apply to complex environments where many co-evolving variables are at play, not all of them in view.

Then who is in control of the pucks direction? Does the player just skate hard and leave the rest to chance? Of course not. To break that question down in this way suggests more control is required. But more (conventional) control actually decreases the players chance of getting the puck in the goal!

My son Niko is pictured above after stealing the puck from two New Zealand attackers. Notice he has tapped the puck but doesn't leave his stick on the it at all. The All-Black on the left has just slashed at the puck but Niko has moved it away so his launching leg protects it and takes the blow. The stick of the opposition player on the right is swinging around to smash the puck away. A split second after this photo Niko deflected that stick with his own, kicking the puck forward with his back leg, then bouncing it off the boards around a New Zealand defender for a shot on goal.

Now consider the traditional "more control" notion of keeping the puck on the stick at all times. Now the opposition player not only has to hit the puck, he can hit the blade or shaft of Niko's stick, his hand, arm or even shoulder and the puck will fly away beyond his reach. Not only that, while concentrating on puck control, Niko would lose his greatest weapon in protecting external influences on the puck...his own stick!

In the complex environment of a hockey game,

This concept is captured in the concept of Obliquity. The idea of taking an indirect approach to achieving your goals.

John Kay says "The most striking instance of obliquity in business is the profit-seeking paradox, which is the idea that the most profitable businesses are not the most profit-oriented" and this doesn't just apply at the upper strategic level of business. "Those who assume an oblique approach tackle problems whose natures emerge only as they are being solved" and this applies to almost all situations where some of the factors are not fully known.

The journey from Simple to Complex
Young players new to the game (just like new Go players or business people not used to complex environments) try to achieve this sort of complete control. In hockey they aim to keep their stick on the puck at all times.

In business, more metrics are called for, KPIs implemented and enforced, robust fail-safe systems employed. This gives them a sense of security and for hockey players at least this seems to be a right of passage. A player needs to know how to control the puck directly before he can learn how to "massage" it in the general direction in a series of seemingly happy accidents.

How can we apply this to business?
Maybe this right of passage is the same in the business world? Not all situations are complex that's for sure and even ones that are, can have simple parts that can be controlled with a quality system or better procedures and metrics. The big difference with complex environments is that although patterns emerge, each new situation is subtly different. Metrics still apply, but now they need to be instantaneous. Success isn't about what worked last time and measuring to ensure you are doing the same way this time. Success instead is about measuring as much as possible about the current environment so you can mindfully and constantly adjust your course of action.

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