Tuesday, 30 September 2014

Complicated v Complex – the good example of chess

Reading again my recent post on complicatedness and complexity, it occurred to me that perhaps I had not provided the clearest of examples.

Riding my bike along a canal towpath the other day it suddenly came to me – the answer was chess! Not that I play chess, you understand  … or even understand it much.

I am told that people keen on chess often record important games – so they can revisit the ‘action’ and learn from mistakes. They often use an algebraic notation to list the moves of each player. The result is a very complicated log of what happened in the game.

It’s complicated, but it is not complex because it is a determinate. If you use the log to reproduce faithfully the moves on a real chessboard you will slowly but surely recreate the game exactly as it happened. It might be tedious, but if you do it accurately you will end up with a true picture of the game, move by move by move.

Compare this to the chess game in real time. When one player makes a move, the other player has to decide whether that player is embarking on a brilliant gambit, bluffing, perhaps, or just making a sad mistake. Each player has to assess the other and try to predict her or his behaviour. There is no one right response to an opponent’s move - just a judgment. Nobody knows exactly how the game will work out until someone calls ‘checkmate’.

In real time the chess game is complex, not simply complicated. There is reciprocal causation between the players – “s/he knows that I know that s/he knows” etc. etc. Even the best-informed predictions may be mistaken. The outcome is always uncertain. It is a dynamic, non-linear situation.

That’s like the complex nature of child protection services. We can’t use a recipe book or a procedural manual or a checklist to get the right outcome. It’s a matter of experience and judgement and wisdom. Understanding that is the first step on the road to creating better services. Sadly there are a lot of people who don’t seem prepared to take it.