Which recipe should we follow for today’s complexity?

When we face complexity, we dive straight into the 'cookbooks' we already have. But unfortunately, old recipes tend to fail when applied in new complex situations. Other ingredients should be sourced.
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Mar 3, 2022

By Nohad Elhajj

Earlier this month, while taking a break before my third zoom session, my phone was faithfully delivering all the daunting news that are happening in the world. I almost missed this cartoon from The New Yorker. “But I followed the recipe exactly”, the cartoon says. I stopped my mindless scrolling, did a cup of coffee and started writing this blog.

My colleagues and I have two main things in common. Beside enjoying what we do, we love complexity. It is the first line you will see if you checked our website. Our philosophy is to embrace the complex nature of today’s challenges and work with the whole system (with its conflicting views) to navigate them.

The first step is, by default, properly identifying that the challenge at hand is a complex challenge. My colleague Mark wrote a great blog earlier on the importance of proper labeling of issues, so I won’t dive into that. The focus of this blog is on what will follow. What do we do after?

Recipe as a guidance

Most of the time, facing complex challenges, we seek our comfort zones. We fall back into our habitual ways of thinking and doing: diving straight into the cookbooks we already have. We think that if we followed the exact recipes, we will definitely find the right and ultimate answer. And, aren’t recipes there for us to follow anyway?

Well, the short answer is that no recipe should be followed exactly! I see ‘recipes’ as the knowledge we accumulated throughout the years. A recipe might serve as a guidance, it gives us an idea of the ingredients we need to use, the steps that we might need to follow. It prevents us from reinventing the wheel. Yet, facing complex challenges, new ingredients should be sourced, steps need to be omitted or reinvented, new tools must be introduced.

As a result, when our old recipes fail and the idea of creating new recipes is overwhelming, we feel stuck. We feel powerless and disheartened which might turn into anger and bitterness.

What do we do? What can we do?

Facilitate in complexity

One of my favorite tips on facilitating in complexity, which I learned from my colleague Monique, is to seek the wisdom of the group when I am uncertain. ‘Ask them’ are the two words that I go by whenever I feel I am in a peculiar situation. The core of this tip is safe space and hearing all the voices in the room. By opening and creating safe spaces where people can get out of their comfort zone, bravely confront complexity and work through their uncertainties collectively, we can pave the path towards a true and transformational problem analysis.

By hearing all the voices in the room, which means each individual expresses their perspectives and shares their insights, we are taking the first steps towards finding a collective solution.

So, whether in public or private organisations, we can start brewing our collective wisdom, opening pockets of safe spaces were ‘transformations’ might happen, and capturing all the voices in our system. Eventually, paving endless ways to create new recipes.

(cartoon by Roz Chast for The New Yorker)