Not all complex challenges are equally challenging.

Adam Kahane outlines three forms of complexity that, when present together, create conditions that feel like running up against a brick wall. Learn to recognise these types of complexity so you can gauge the degree of challenge ahead, and include strategies that address each aspect.

Dynamic complexity

Dynamic complexity occurs when cause and effect are separated by space or time.

When you change under conditions of dynamic complexity, you don’t sense the consequences of this action reverberating in other parts of the system. It’s easy to fall into the trap of solving one problem by creating a bigger problem somewhere else for someone else at some later point in time.

Dynamic complexity requires a broader system perspective to anticipate and detect how one aspect of the system interacts with another.

Social complexity

We encounter social complexity when we share conflicting perspectives and understandings of the system.

Social complexity creates barriers to a shared understanding of what our current situation is, what is changing around us, and what good looks like. We can’t find common ground about who we are, where we are, or where we should be going.

To make progress in conditions of social complexity, adapt strategies that engage actors with conflicting views to take action that generates insights and tests assumptions about these perspectives.

Generative complexity

We encounter generative complexity when the emerging future feels strange and unfamiliar.

This is challenging because traditional change models draw on evidence-based practice that have served us well in the past.

Generative complexity challenges us to develop practice-based evidence to create new next-practice solutions fit for the future we are stepping into.

Once you can name these dynamics, you will start to spot them in all kinds of places. Bolster your change toolkit with techniques that address each type of complexity – you never know when you will encounter them next.