Complexity and Simplicity

Professor Brian Cox, a British physicist, has become famous for his popular interpretations of physics for the lay person on television and radio.

In the BBC programme Wonders of the Universe he observed that our experience (in our observations of the universe) of “complexity masks an underlying simplicity” and went on to say that simple rules can give rise to multiple outcomes, with chance being heavily constrained by natural laws.  He even talks of “fateful accidents” – outcomes that by chance have led to the experience we know of the world around us.  Simple rules give rise to complex outcomes.

In the Preface to the book (page xviii), I make the point that complexity is the interaction of the real world with the principles that govern it and draw attention to the idea apparently generally endorsed by scientists that the more simple answer to a question of how things work in nature is more likely to be the correct one.

For the practitioner and theoretician alike, I believe that the emphasis should always be on understanding the simple features of the processes in which we are interested before making any attempt to understand the complexity of influences over these simple features.  It is also evident to me that the same can be said of understanding useful control measures.  These are best identified from the simple understanding of processes and attention is best paid to the simple requirements of their maintenance over time.

In other words, in neither accident investigation nor in trying to understand the role of organisation complexity in the occurrence of ‘accidents’ is there much to be gained by diving in to the complex presentation of the phenomenon.  The fact that correlation is not necessarily related to causation applies here.

Of course, organisations display complex character, be that either of the organisation design, the transactions between people needed for it to carry out its function, the interpersonal relationships, the politics of its management, its relationship with regulators and with competitors and customers.  Each individual organisation has its own character and culture arising from the memory of the sum total of these interactions over time.  Nevertheless, the simple fact remains that if the organisation’s role is to provide health services, for example, it is doing the same things day in and day out as thousands of other organisations which are the same, yet different.  It is in the similarity that the simplicity is to be found.  Regardless of the organisation’s history, culture and organisational character, patients need to have the right treatment at the right time.

Consequently, I do not see much point in research that seeks meaning in the correlation of circumstantial factors (eg. at what time of day did the accident occur?), nor do I take much interest in research directions such as that into “complex adaptive organisations”.  Any effort to emphasise the essential simplicity of ‘accidents’ is to be applauded in my view.  If we look for complexity it supports the idea of mystery and we simply feed our superstitious nature, even if this is at a subconscious level.

1 Comment


    Safety management at various projects during the resources boom indicates a significant resurgence in traditional egocentric accident theory. This has been supplemented with a plethora of complex and nebulous psychology based nostrums, which have generated a corresponding increase in obscurantism and agnotology and progress has stalled accordingly.

    Theodore Dalrymple, in his recent book entitled Admirable Evasions, critically evaluates how psychology undermines morality and provides further interesting observations and extensive comments on the vast and mysterious field of psychology. This includes psychoanalysis, behaviourism, cognitive behaviour therapy, cybernetics, socio-biology, evolutionary psychology, neuro-scientific imaging and neurochemistry. It would be a bold person who claims that our self-understanding, with the forlorn hope of an existence free of inner and outer conflict, is now greater than that of Montaigne or Shakespeare. We owe incomparably more to improved sewerage than to psychology.

    Or to quote the late Trevor Kletz, try changing the situation, not the person. It is much less complicated than BF Skinner trying to teach pigeons how to play table tennis.

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