On Mental Models & Complexity Sinks

A lot of my work is helping orgs (and more importantly, people) navigate through transitions of some kind or another:

The complexity and uncertainty of a world changed through data, or how seemingly banal things like messaging apps or chip production suddenly become embroiled in geopolitics and force strategic realignments. Shifts in power distribution and dynamics that upend old alliances and bring about new, often unexpected ones (who’d have thought that early internet free speech activists would have to be careful not to be put into the same basket as the MAGA crowd). Evolution in thinking about which actors might be able to provide important input and counterweight in the political process and how to support them (like civil society).

So, navigating complexity and change. Which is largely a question of having a mental map of the world that both reflects reality and also works for your org/context. (That last part gets overlooked frequently, but that’s for another day.)

There are two quotes that have stuck with me ever since I first encountered them:

“Ideally you’re a complexity sink. Chaos goes in, order comes out.”
Najaf Ali

“„When you think ‚this doesn’t make sense‘, really what you’re saying is ‚my model of the world doesn’t make sense‘“
— Ezra Klein

I think they go beautifully side by side as they open up a whole, wide space full of interactions.

On one hand, it’s part of my job to be a complexity sink. In fact, I’d argue it’s part of many people’s job these days. Absorb and engage with the real complexities, and try to make sense of them. If things go well, you’ll end up with a clearer, less complex picture of what’s going on and what’s necessary. By naming and categorizing things (inputs, vectors, options, actors, etc.) it’s usually possible to create structure out of seeming chaos, and hence put things into a shape that’s better suited to analysis, the basis of strategy.

The second part is to make sense out of all of this, to update the model of the world so that ongoing developments make sense, to whatever degree that is possible. It’s safe to assume that if there are actors that put their energy into making something happen, then even if it doesn’t make obvious sense or might even seem nefarious, they’re probably acting on some sort of mental model of their own that once understood can be acted upon. If you don’t understand why a thing is happening, why a transformation is taking place, why and how power dynamics change — then your mental model of the world doesn’t allow you to make sense of what’s going on. It needs updating.

The complexity sink is part of that process. Being able to let go of existing notions is another.

Anyway, just some quick thoughts.


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