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Complexity is here...with Chaos right behind!

Many of us might describe the image associated with today's post as "complex." I would describe it as "complicated." Complex things have unpredicted emergent qualities. Complicated ones do not. When we turn on an engine, we expect one thing: that it runs as it was built to do... nothing more, nothing less. We often use complex and complicated interchangeably without much thought to their real differences. Most of the time, those differences don't interfere with our ability to get our point across. After two months sheltering-in-place and current discussions of opening back up, the differences between complicated and complex have become life or death in some situations...literal death for some and economic death for many others.

My last blog touched on the superficial differences between simple (obvious), complicated, complex, and chaotic situations. I thought I would explore how things have been progressing along those lines.

The obvious solutions to sequestering the virus like wearing masks and social distancing seem to be working. Stores have imposed limits on the number of items, like toilet paper, per customer. Some businesses are limiting the number of customers allowed in the store at any time. Some have established one-way pathways through the store in order to eliminate people passing on another.

Addressing the problem of financial support for the population and businesses is, however, more complicated. How much do we need? Where does it come from? Who gets it...and how much for how long? Once that has been handled, the larger challenge of restarting the economy is waiting. This will require some expert knowledge; a number of conflicting opinions will be proffered. And, of course, a lot of political and partisan head butting will it has been. Then we will make a choice about action.

It might be predictable that people would employ their creativity during a crisis like this. But what exactly they might create is not. This moves us into complexity - the region with emergent processes and challenges. One example: the shelter-in-place mandate did not allow for people gathering together, like church services. Distributing food, however, was allowed for those in need. In a work around, some churches began distributing food to its members, which allowed them to gather to pick up the food at the same time and services just happened at the same time. When meat-packing plants were closed down due to infection of workers in the workplace, it was not likely that anyone was predicting the slaughter of tens to hundreds of thousands of hogs because the farmers could not take them to market. We have yet to see all the strange bedfellows that will emerge from this complexity.

Although we don't know just how much chaos will occur in the business world, we can see some of it in the social world. Factions of the public are defying the mandates for masks and social distancing. In my town, groups of people began gathering in demonstration at major intersections during "rush hours." They were standing around the traffic lights, holding signs, and waving flags as they tried to get the attention of drivers. Perhaps one in 20 was wearing a mask and they were certainly not 6 feet apart. They were deliberately entering a situation with an unknowable amount of risk. In addition, drivers, trying to manage the intersection, had to sort demonstrators from pedestrians who were trying to cross the street. The driver had to decide in short order whether one of those people huddled at the light would emerge from the group to cross the street. Adding to that, the police were present, but did not enforce the order to wear masks or maintain social distancing. Was anyone thinking about the chaos they were creating by adding all of that distraction to a busy intersection?

We shall see how things progress. Clear leadership is crucial at this point. It is difficult to apply constraints to a social system when conflicting messages are coming from the top and partisan politics drains resources and energy from the system. One side saying, "Don't jump! We don't know what's down there." While the other is saying, "If we don't jump, we're going to die anyway."

These are challenging times. Perhaps the most challenging some of us will ever face on this scale. The stance we take as individuals will determine in large part the effectiveness we have as a group. This time is a great opportunity for personal growth. How we face this challenge will either contribute to our growth where we emerge better able to meet life's challenges or leave us essentially unchanged with less money and more cynicism and anger about how things "should" have gone.


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