Complexity: Why straight lines rarely lead to better outcomes

Every day I talk with and coach people who want to do (and be) better. It’s a deeply human quality to desire that which is “better.” Our desire for “better” fuels our ingenuity and energizes our inventive spirit. However, achieving “better”–rather than simply desiring it–is quite a different story. The work that leads to continuous improvement is often arduous and even elusive. We could fill up entire volumes, as some have, exploring the challenges associated with improvement and progress.


As we work to better ourselves or a situation, challenges surface along the way. One of those challenges is the complexity that inevitably accompanies life and work situations. Life doesn’t normally move in a straight line or behave according to my pre-determined plan. And if we want to improve, we won’t likely move in straight lines either. Understanding and navigating complexity then is a critical skill we must develop on our way to “better.”


[Tweet “”Better” is in part achieved through the realization, acceptance and adaptation to complexity. @davefleming360″]


Systems, human and otherwise, are often complex. This means that there are a number of variables that influence how and why the system behaves the way it does. In order make something better, we must appreciate that there is rarely a direct line from one behavior to the “better” outcome we want.


For example, consider a small departmental team in a mid-sized company that localizes all their relational woes onto one person. The chosen person is “difficult” and a “contrarian” that  challenges the group in irritating ways. Often members think that, “if the trouble maker would just leave, things would be so much better.” And then, one day that difficult person does leave, gets transferred to a different department. And guess what? Things don’t magically get better. The group remains dysfunctional and even begins to miss how the difficult person challenged the status quo. Yes, of course, the difficult person was at times a problem. But once he was removed from the situation, other variables surfaced that highlighted the complexity of the system. Straight lines, from action to outcome, rarely exist in complex systems. Complexity rules.


Of course, things may be somewhat better when one variable (in a system) is altered. But we must let go of our love for straight lines. Isolating a variable, blaming it, changing it and waiting for nirvana is not a good strategy.  In fact, that mentality will actually slow the possibility of progress. So we might ask, should we isolate a troublesome variable and change it? And the answer is usually, yes we should try to isolate variables that need changing and change them. The problem is not with the isolation of variables. The problem arises when we isolate a variable and believe that if we just change that variable, all will be well.


Complexity reminds us that there are a myriad of variables that all intertwine and interact. We must work on many variables simultaneously and experiment often. We must be willing to risk, try, fail, learn and start the process over again. We must also work across tribal divisions to find shared perspectives that allow us to work collectively on complexities. We must fall in love with lines that are not straight but still lead us to “better.”



  1. Carolyn September 26, 2016 at 7:45 am - Reply

    I recognize that illustration!! Good stuff- messy but good 🙂

    • Dave September 26, 2016 at 2:04 pm - Reply

      Messy can be good, indeed.


  2. Ken Sneeden September 26, 2016 at 12:21 pm - Reply

    Once again, you hit the proverbial nail on the head, Dave! Truly, in order to address today’s complex challenges “we must let go of our love of straight lines,” you say. Incredibly well put. I plan to steal… er, uhh… QUOTE you in my next presentation on artful communications. ‘Cause if it was easy, somebody would put it in a can, sell it at WalMart, and we’d all be doing it the same way. Embrace the chaos!

    • Dave September 26, 2016 at 2:03 pm - Reply

      Hi Ken,

      Indeed, chaos is my friend. Thanks for the thoughts.

      Steal anytime. 🙂


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Written by Dave Fleming