Valuable Systems

The blog of Cantlin Ashrowan

Coherent and complex

419 words from 11 December 2020

There’s nothing more fun than making things, especially together. We’ve been doing it for 1.6 million years – it’s no wonder the experience feels so deeply satisfying.

A handaxe from Olduvai Gorge.
A handaxe from Olduvai Gorge.

The world is full of depictions of the creative as a haunted and solitary figure, raving in isolation as they splatter oils against the wall.

A very tired looking front door
Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear, Vincent van Gogh, 1889.

The reality though is most creativity is done together, in teams that create things beyond the reach of a single person.

If there is a central tenet to the idea of a company, it is collaboration. Company comes from the Latin com, meaning “with, together.” They are vehicles for us to make more than we can alone.

Some things are quite easy to do with others, like chopping firewood. There is a deep, warm feeling you get after a day of physical labour toward a common aim.

Some collaborations are harder, like decorating a room in a house you share. Now here are decisions to be made. Things can be more or less good, and ideas about what is good or bad might vary substantially.

Some things are very hard, like making a film together. Now there are many expert processes, that all must coalesce to make a cohesive whole.

Collaboration, it turns out, gets harder in proportion to two things: the level of coherence you demand from the output, and the complexity of the processes that create it.

Collaboration that creates incoherence is easy. You all just do whatever you want. Equally, collaboration on things that are not complex is easy. You can all see whether the log has been chopped or not, there is limited room for debate.

Most ways of designing large endeavours, like companies and governments, are at their heart about managing the desire for coherence and the necessity of complexity.

Like with all the most fun dynamics, these two factors are in opposition. Say we divide whatever we’re doing into many parts, each with a smaller group working on it. The effective complexity everyone has to deal with is much reduced. But the danger that the outputs will not make sense in relation to each other is much increased.

On the other hand, lets say that instead we first come up with a clear overarching plan for what we’re doing. This makes it much more likely the outcome will be coherent. But the price we pay is having to handle the complexity of the entire challenge all at once.

Valuable Systems is the blog of me, Cantlin Ashrowan, a product leader based in London. You can email me at cantlin@gmail.com, or follow me on Twitter here.