The Practice & Art of Thinking

Chaos, Complexity and Sense Making in Problem Solving

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It occurred to me recently that these concepts can be daunting and a serious turn-off for some. They are, however, very useful concepts, especially in the highly-changing and complex environment we live in. If we want to solve problems, it would be smart for us to understand them.

To attempt to explain them, let us consider the game of pick-up sticks also known as Mikado (originating in Hungary).

image source unknown.

image source unknown.

When we drop the sticks, they all fall in a heap and there is no rhyme nor reason about the way they land. They are just a bunch of beautifully shaped sticks, randomly scattered on a table. It appears chaotic.

Problems at first seem very much like this – they are confusing and jumbled up – a little like life can be. We touch on something and something else is affected. Just like the sticks, you attempt to move one stick and other sticks move.

What one really needs to do is approach the situation and look for the patterns, the leverage points, and the relationships between the sticks. We need to create meaning and make sense of the data (sticks) in front of us.

The sticks stop appearing to be chaotic because we have been through a process of sense making and essentially ‘tamed’ the chaos. We have attached meaning to the relationships between the sticks, the spaces and gaps. We start to observe and spot the emerging points where action can take place.

After ‘listening’ to the data – observation and learning – we start to tame the chaos. It becomes familiar and we feel comfortable with the patterns that once were so strange and unfamiliar. Nothing has changed; all we did was go through a process of reasoning and sense making.

Problems are very much like this. At first, we are faced with unfamiliar and a highly-interconnected jumble of issues but, as we slowly interact with the data, we learn and make sense. We start to be able to plot the landscape and it becomes familiar. At this point, we are able to develop a theory that explains the situation and we are able to identify solutions to the problem.

I have not explained what chaos, complexity or even sense making is here because I have done so in many previous posts. What I wanted to achieve in this post is to use a metaphor of the game ‘pick-up sticks’ to illustrate how simple these concepts can be and how they are interrelated.

Reality remains chaotic and complex – the sticks remain a heap – all that has changed is that we are able to articulate and understand it. We tame it not by having changed anything; the only thing that has changed is that we have internalized and understood the reality. Reality becomes familiar and we are able to navigate through the various situations.

Image source - LOR

Image source – LOR


Author: Rui D S Martins

Creative Director and founder of MindVision Technologies

One thought on “Chaos, Complexity and Sense Making in Problem Solving

  1. I totally agree. Awesome post dude.


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