What can El Capitan Teach Us About Managing Complexity?


In June 2017, climber Alex Honnold became the first person to climb Yosemite’s El Capitan without ropes.  If that feat alone isn’t amazing enough, he made the climb in 4 hours, when the climbing guides describe it as a four DAY climb.

Coverage of the climb made me think of what it takes to manage in the face of complexity. When you find yourself in a situation that is volatile, unpredictable, with many elements that interact in unknown ways, you may find yourself thinking “I don’t know what to do”.  In that situation the trick is to be clear on the direction, while recognising you can’t know the precise steps that will take you there.

It’s a bit like I imagine rock climbing to be.  The climber knows the direction – up!  And the destination – to the top!  But a climber facing a new climb doesn’t know exactly how to get there.  Yet, they don’t stay at the bottom of the climb until they have solved the problem. Rather, they start.  They go up.  They head in the direction.

And on the way, they will often be wrong.   A new climb will lead them up false paths. Sometimes they may end up going down rather than up. Sometimes they will need to back track and make another choice.  But they are constantly learning and always clear about the direction they want to go.

The climber on an unfamiliar face is an experimenter.  She hypothesises: “If I follow that crack it should get me around that face”.  She conducts the experiment by following the crack and testing her hunch.  If it seems to be working she will keep moving forward and up. If it runs out, she will either return or strike out in another direction.

That’s the essence of managing in the face of complexity.  Identify the direction: we want to ensure the waterway is healthier and more suitable for all users.  Then test the ‘leads’. Follow those cracks that might take you to the top.  They won’t all be successful, but by experimenting your way forward you stand a good chance of getting where you need to go.

Alex Honnold had to use this approach even on such a well-mapped and well-known climb as El Capitan.  There were a couple of places where he had to leave the route and find his own way up.  Despite not knowing, he managed to make progress and smash every preconception about what it takes to achieve the goal.

So, you don’t have to leave the ground to experience the thrill of climbing.  Go forth and experiment your way to success.

The ABC of Complexity

As I write, the head of Australia’s public broadcaster, the ABC, has just announced a very significant restructure of the organisation and its 5,000 employees. CEO Michelle Guthrie was quoted as saying:

“This exercise today is about making sure we work collectively and in better and smarter ways to serve our audience.” “The initiatives … will improve collaboration and decision making,” “[These changes] provide for more flexibility in allocating resources.”

It sounds very impressive and sensible, but how confident can the CEO be that the restructure will deliver as expected? Complexity science would say not confident at all. Just consider some of the basic concepts of managing any complex system, such as a large corporation.

With a complex system we can only manage the current state, we can’t manage the future state.

In other words we have no way of knowing that if we do X we will get Y. An organisation is like an organism, with many separate parts all interacting in multiple ways, some of which we know about and some we don’t. Because every part of a complex system influences and is influenced by every other part, it is impossible to know with certainty the outcome of any action large or small. Complex systems are the realm of unintended consequences and emergent responses, meaning we can never be sure that the structure we bring in today will deliver the outcome desired tomorrow. The only thing we can be confident of is that we won’t get what we expect.

Beware Premature Convergence

Landing on a solution is what leadership is about, right? Except when we are dealing with something genuinely complex, it is much easier and more comfortable to name a ‘solution’ than to acknowledge and grapple with the inherent unknowability of the situation. The temptation to come to a position is powerful but the minute we start narrowing down – converging on a solution – we reduce our capacity to scan for the unknown, to explore other possibilities, to have our ideas doubted and tested and to test others. In complexity, the answer is never the answer anyway so staying open to what is emerging is a much more powerful strategy.

Experimentation is key

Nobody knows what is the ‘best’ structure for a large public broadcaster in Australia in the early 21st Century. Nobody can know. The changes announced today for the ABC, while couched in terms of certainty, in fact amount to an expensive, possibly disruptive and risky experiment in corporate design, as all such restructures do. They can’t be anything else. But leaders aren’t allowed to acknowledge that they are experimenting on their organisation. They particularly can’t acknowledge it to themselves. Yet, experimentation is in many ways the best strategy.

In complex situations we can’t know in advance the outcome of actions, so how do we manage? We create hypotheses and test them in ‘safe to fail’ ways. We experiment around specific ideas about how the system works and what might improve it. If we find those experiments successful we ramp them up. If we find them failing we dial them down, while learning as much as possible about why they aren’t working as expected. And then we do it again. And again. And….

Management therefore becomes a continuous exercise in ‘learning the way forward’ through incremental changes, using pilots, tests, trials, experiments. At no time can anyone say with certainty that the existing structure is ‘the best’, but they will be able to say that new ideas are constantly being tested and improvements introduced. Importantly, the brainpower of the entire workforce can usefully be employed in generating hypotheses, designing and running experiments, deciding what did and didn’t work and determining and making changes as a result. Rather than paying a big four consultant to ‘fix the problem’ a manager can rely on the employees to co-create something unique, fit-for-purpose and always, always shifting to meet emerging needs.

In some ways, managing complexity is very challenging, but to accept uncertainty and adopt an experimental approach is as easy as ABC.