The stages of living with complexity

We are living in a complex world of interconnected and nested systems. This can be quite overwhelming and often stops us from taking action. In order to tackle the current societal and environmental challenges, we have to overcome these negative feelings and start to embrace the complexity of our world and the opportunities that it brings.

Because I have always felt more comfortable interacting with complex systems than the people around me, I realised I can help others to grow their confidence interacting with complexity. The figure below shows the typical stages we go through, in order to become confident interacting with complex systems and how I help people on this journey with:


At the beginning, we are unaware of the extend of the influence we have on the systems we are part of. In this stage, we easily make decisions, because we see the consequences of our actions as being straight forward. At the same time, we feel somewhat powerless, because we believe we are unable to change the system we live in and just have to accept any unpleasant consequences. We move out of this stage due to experiences we make and stories we hear from others. I raise awareness for the connectedness of our world, by sharing my own stories.



The realisation of the complexity of our world can be quite overwhelming. We start to realise the unintended consequences of our previous actions and struggle to make new decisions. We might try to ignore what we have learned and live life as we used to, creating conflict and tension within ourselves.




To move to the next stage, we need to accept the complex reality and realise that with the right tools and knowledge, interacting with complex systems becomes a lot less scary. In our current society of silos and compartmentalisation, we do not get to practice systems thinking enough, making us feel insecure when we do need this skill. At the same time, we underestimate the amount of experience we actually have interacting with complex systems. We intuitively navigate traffic, handle social situations, raise children and enjoy hobbies like gardening, dancing and team sports. We just do not realise that this knowledge can be transferred to other areas in our lives.

The first step to relieve the feeling of overwhelm is to gain an overview of the system, by creating a systems map. This allows us to see that there is a structure behind the complexity. All systems consist of components and their connections. The behaviour of the system emerges from the interactions of the components.



Seeing the structure and patterns of complex systems is likely to spark curiosity, making us want to learn more about systems. For people in this stage, I organise systems science workshops. Here I also help people to realise, that they already know a lot more about complex systems than they are aware of and show them how to transfer their knowledge between areas.


Once we understand how systems are organised, behave and develop, we know what information we need, in order to gain a better understanding of our own system. We can explore our system to gather this information and add more detail to our systems map. During the exploration phase, I continue to give counsel to people, asking questions to help them see where more information is needed. Additionally I facilitate group discussions with Live Systems mapping and organise workshops using the Lego® Serious Play® method. This brings together stakeholders from within the system and combines their perspectives and knowledge, helping to construct the full picture. You can read more about the Lego® Serious Play® method here.



When we have gathered enough information and have gained an understanding of the system, we regain the confidence to take action. We are aware that it is impossible to predict all consequences of our actions and start to become more comfortable carrying out experiments. We take a small action, observe how the system reacts and adjust if necessary.





The final stage of this journey is an ongoing loop. We take an action and observe how the system reacts. If we are surprised by the reaction, we might have to spend more time exploring the system or learning more about systems science. At the same time, the reactions of the system will help us to understand the system even better.