In Complexity All Stories are True?

Like many, last spring I became fascinated with the story of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370. Alarmed. Concerned. Sympathetic. Sorrowful.

The flight was an international passenger flight leaving from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, and scheduled to arrive in Beijing, China. The flight was lost. Incredulous as this sounds in an age of advanced radar and satellite imagery, the flight was lost. There were 239 people on board.

Did it crash into the sea? Was it hijacked? Was it a terrorist attack? Did it explode? Speculation on news programs ran rampant for a number of months after the disappearance. Though this disappearance led to the largest and most expensive search in aviation history, that continues now, no evidence has been found or shared to confirm any of several possible stories about what really happened.

The unexplained disappearance of this plane strikes me as being rather complex. Without intending to overlook the basic tragedy of 239 lives lost, most likely, there is a key learning for me from this event that is related to complexity. Is is that in complex circumstances, all stories (OK, many stories) remain simultaneously true. There can be much posturing about a preferred story, and the selective attention to data that supports that story, but it remains that all stories are true. None of the stories can be disproven.

Let’s back up a bit and link this to participative leadership.

In the Cynefin Framework developed by Dave Snowden, there is an important distinction between four environments: simple, complicated, complex, and chaotic.

In a simple environment, one story tends to be true. A causes B. It’s very linear. Little discussion is needed to confirm the narrative. Smoking causes lung cancer.

In a complicated environment, a few stories are true. There is still linearity. A more involved algorithm perhaps, but the narrative is still clear. Smoking increases the chance of lung cancer. So does exposure to secondary smoke. So does exposure to a polluted quality of air.

In a complex environment, all stories remain true. Meaning must be negotiated. Must be a conversation, in which many narratives are relevant and simultaneously plausible. What promotes good health? Yes, of course, exercise. Yes, of course, a proper diet. Yes, of course, rest. And yes, of course, avoidance of habits such as smoking. Despite these many affirmations, in a broad enough conversation, there will be people that know of others living a long, long life despite the absence of exercise, a proper diet, rest, etc. Despite the habits of smoking, and other patterns that correlate with illness and disease.

Most people relate to complex lives. Wether personal lives, at the job, or in leading levels of transformation. One essential need in these complex lives, is the ability to explore the simultaneous existence of many stories being true. It may play with our brains — after all, it is so nice to impose a simplicity — and create significant confusion and frustration. Yet, the essential capacity is more curiosity, not more certainty supported by blustering boldly. The disposition of being able to pause, to wonder — less blame and fix — is what will walk us more meaningfully and productively in today’s plethora of complex environments.

Recently in speaking with an elder friend that I trust, when I asked how she was doing, she responded, “I don’t take any of it too seriously any more.” I know her well enough to know that she takes many things seriously. It isn’t apathy that she was describing. I believe it was the kind of wisdom that comes with experience, and perhaps age, to not get hooked into impositions of truth. I believe it was the kind of tempering that comes with experience to begin to recognize that story, is so often our choice.

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