What do I mean by linear thinking? Consider the industrial model — take your raw material, feed it through specific processes, and out comes a finished product. Can’t get much more linear than that. To some extent, this is how we’ve been trained to think and act, with detailed strategic plans and logic models to guide our steps. More and more we’re understanding that this isn’t an effective approach for social issues, but what is the alternative?

Complexity theory suggests a different way of thinking and acting. Without going into too much detail, consider the insight this theory offers.

As I heard the late Brenda Zimmerman brilliantly explain at the Collective Impact Summit in Toronto in 2014, there are three kinds of problems:

  • Simple ones are like making a cake. If you carefully follow a good recipe, you will end up with a good cake – and you’ll get the same result, every time. It doesn’t require a lot of experience, though expertise certainly helps.
  • Complicated ones are like sending a rocket to the moon. Clearly much more involved than baking a cake! But once you figure it out, if you follow the same protocols you can expect to achieve the same results. Experience and expertise are required.
  • Complex ones are like raising a child. While we know some basic things are helpful or harmful to a child’s development, beyond that parents have to rely on their intuition because no two kids are the same. What works with one may be a disaster with another. Experience definitely helps, but is no guarantee of success; the notion of expertise is not only questionable, but may actually get in the way.

For simple and even complicated problems, we plan and then act. We aim for consistency and efficiency, use best practices as models, and rely on buy in from others. A single agency, or a partnership of two or three organizations with a Memo of Understanding to spell out the responsibilities of each, can be effective. This is the “linear thinking” model we’re used to, and it works for programmatic solutions, such as creating a tutoring program or increasing the scale of a food distribution program.

But it doesn’t work for complex problems — like ending hunger or poverty, cleaning up the environment, achieving equity in education and health outcomes, or creating age friendly communities.

For complex problems, we need to act and learn at the same time, taking an iterative approach to strategy that aims for coherence and adaptability. We need to embrace innovation, not simply replicate best practices from elsewhere. We need a larger number and variety of partners, and a sense of ownership — not just buy in — among all participants.

In short, what complexity theory tells us is that our mindset in addressing the big, complex issues facing our communities needs to move beyond our old, linear way of thinking to a new, adaptive approach. This new mindset requires an openness to learning, a willingness to risk failure, and the commitment to make course corrections as needed. Just as with raising children, adaptability truly is the key.

This change from linear to adaptive thinking, along with moving from competition to trust and from silos to systems (which I’ve discussed in earlier posts) are essential culture shifts for the kind of collaboration needed to address the challenges facing our communities.

If you’re interested in delving deeper into complexity, I recommend “Getting to Maybe: How the World is Changed,” co-authored by Frances Westley, Brenda Zimmerman, and Michael Quinn Patton.