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  • Writer's pictureJake Wood

VUCA Decoding Chaos, Part 4: Complexity

Updated: Nov 28, 2020

This is Part 4 of a multi-part series called Decoding Chaos. In Parts 1, 2, and 3 we learned about the military’s acronym for chaos - VUCA - and explored the first two forms: Volatility and Uncertainty. This week we’ll take a look at C, Complexity, before diving into Part 5, which will focus on Ambiguity.

When the chaos we face is ruled by Complexity we find ourselves overwhelmed by countless interconnected parts and variables. Simply put, the volume and nature of information is so staggering that we find it difficult to understand it. Further complicating these situations, any potential action or decision has vast multi-order consequences which seem impossible to fully map out.

Whereas Uncertain situations (Part 3) are marked by the information we don’t know, Complex situations are marked by the plethora of information we do know.

To help readers understand Uncertainty I relied on the game of Blackjack. For Complexity I will pull from the same bag of tricks and use the game of chess to illustrate this form of chaos.

Though seemingly simple, utilizing a straight-forward board with 64 squares and 32 pieces, chess is considered one of the most complicated games ever created by humans. There are six different types of pieces, each with a distinct ability to maneuver on the board. Players take turns moving one piece at a time, with an aim to capture their opponent’s King (in part by eliminating other pieces of the opponent).

So just how complex is chess?

Well, there are 20 possible opening moves that each player can make. So after each player has made a single move, there are 400 possible combinations of the chess board.

After each player has made two moves? 72,000 possible combinations.

After three moves? 9 million.

After each player has made four moves? An astounding 288 billion combinations.

That’s a lot of combinations. It’s estimated that there are 1043 total possible combinations, but we don’t know the precise number because humans haven’t yet invented a computer powerful enough to compute it.

So why is chess’ complexity relevant to how we conquer chaos? Well, as complex as chess is, nearly any situation we might face is even more complex. That’s because life is not bound by the parameters like the ones placed on players and pieces in chess. Our opponents don’t have to wait calmly for us to make our move. Their tactics (pieces) aren’t limited to simple maneuvers. Sure, our tactics may have limitations (we can’t raise infinite capital or reduce the cost of production to zero), but there are infinite possibilities in between.

So how do we sift through these voluminous options and pick the right strategies and tactics? Let’s revisit chess. On average, a player has about 30 possible moves to choose from on each turn. That’s a decent number of options to evaluate the merit of. But good players don’t just evaluate their next move, instead they assess how their opponent is likely to respond to each move (remember, the opponent will have an average of 30 possible responses). But great players think multiple-moves ahead. This can quickly become overwhelming, because for each option you evaluate, your opponent will have 30 options to respond, and you’ll have 30 options for each of their option (and so on). That means roughly 900 scenarios for each of your choices, or 27,000 options to evaluate if you’re only looking at third-order consequences. Suffice it to say you would have to be a genius in order to evaluate all of those options in a timely manner.

So how do great chess players - or great business leaders - navigate complexity?

First, great leaders are able to view complexity through a lens of experience. This experience allows them to very quickly sort options into those that are good, those that are bad, and those that are worth further consideration. By immediately eliminating bad options (which are most options, by the way) you can focus your attention on exploring the second and third order impacts of your good options.

It’s hard to overstate the importance of experience. The best chess players have played tens of thousands of games, and have often encountered the same scenario multiple times. That means they’ve had the opportunity to try different strategies and evaluate the outcomes. Likewise, a seasoned football player that diligently studies his opponent’s game film will know the opponent’s play-calling tendencies in certain situations. This allows the player to key in on specific cues that will enable him to get an edge before the ball is snapped.

This means that we should seek to expand our experience - both directly (experiencing it ourselves) and indirectly (studying the experience of others). The first is obvious, but often hard to achieve. It would be great if as business leaders we could simply sign-up for opportunities to experience high-stakes complexity - but we know that that’s hard to do. Some organizations and industries, like the military and oil & gas companies, will use trainings called table-top exercises (TTXs) to try to recreate these types of scenarios. Done right, TTXs are a great tool for practicing how to navigate overwhelming information and complex decision trees.

If TTXs aren’t an option for you, then you should seek to expand your knowledge by studying the experiences of others. General Jim Mattis, who would later serve as Secretary of Defense, is known for being a voracious reader. General Mattis states that any given battlefield scenario has been faced by some other officer in some other war, and that it was a moral obligation for officers to dutifully read military history and learn from those experiences in order to keep their troops alive.

In fact, General Mattis famously responded to a young Marine officer who wrote him a letter indicating that he couldn’t prioritize finding time to read. General Mattis responded:

The problem with being too busy to read is that you learn by experience (or by your men's experience), i.e. the hard way. By reading, you learn through others' experiences, generally a better way to do business, especially in our line of work where the consequences of incompetence are so final for young men.

Thanks to my reading, I have never been caught flat-footed by any situation, never at a loss for how any problem has been addressed (successfully or unsuccessfully) before. It doesn't give me all the answers, but it lights what is often a dark path ahead.

He continued later in the letter:

Ultimately, a real understanding of history means that we face NOTHING new under the sun.

For all the "4th Generation of War" intellectuals running around today saying that the nature of war has fundamentally changed, the tactics are wholly new, etc, I must respectfully say … "Not really": Alex the Great would not be in the least bit perplexed by the enemy that we face right now in Iraq, and our leaders going into this fight do their troops a disservice by not studying (studying, vice just reading) the men who have gone before us.

We have been fighting on this planet for 5000 years and we should take advantage of their experience. "Winging it" and filling body bags as we sort out what works reminds us of the moral dictates and the cost of incompetence in our profession. As commanders and staff officers, we are coaches and sentries for our units: how can we coach anything if we don't know a hell of a lot more than just the [Tactics, Techniques, and Procedures]? What happens when you're on a dynamic battlefield and things are changing faster than higher [Headquarters] can stay abreast? Do you not adapt because you cannot conceptualize faster than the enemy's adaptation? (Darwin has a pretty good theory about the outcome for those who cannot adapt to changing circumstance — in the information age things can change rather abruptly and at warp speed, especially the moral high ground which our regimented thinkers cede far too quickly in our recent fights.) And how can you be a sentinel and not have your unit caught flat-footed if you don't know what the warning signs are — that your unit's preps are not sufficient for the specifics of a tasking that you have not anticipated?

General Mattis is right: as leaders we have an obligation to arm ourselves with knowledge of how other leaders in other organizations have acted in similar circumstances. This is why the case learning method pioneered by Harvard Business School has become the gold standard of advanced management education. As Mattis states, you need to know a hell of a lot more than just the tactics, techniques, and procedures taught in traditional textbooks.

“If you haven't read hundreds of books, you are functionally illiterate, and you will be incompetent, because your personal experiences alone aren't broad enough to sustain you.” General Jim Mattis

In summary, our experience - direct or indirect; yours or other’s - allows us to quickly sift through information and separate the signal from the noise. Now able to focus on our good options or the relevant information, we can leverage our limited capacity on developing and executing winning strategies.

The second thing critical to succeeding in complex situations is clarity. It is the leader’s job to make the complex simple. This first means clearly communicating to your team about what the priorities are. Junior team members (those that lack your experience) can quickly find themselves drowning in complexity. By clearly setting their priorities - priority of information (what to trust and pay attention to) and priority of effort (what to work on) - you immediately reduce complexity. Now your people know their key tasks and what information to rely on in order to accomplish them.

Since information is so vast and our assumptions can change so rapidly in Complexity, it’s important that a regular meeting cadence is quickly established (in the military, and at Team Rubicon, we refer to this as a ‘battle rhythm’). In these moments I always advise organizations to err on the side of meeting too frequently and sharing too much information. You’ll likely hear teammates complain that they’re a drag on productivity, but nothing is less productive than an organization that is failing to develop a common operating picture. The key to making this a productive exercise is establishing clarity about exactly what information will be shared, at what point in the agenda, by whom. Individuals should walk into each meeting with a clear understanding of what updates they’ll give and receive and how it impacts their main priorities of effort. Done right, these meetings are a dazzling display of communications efficiency and the result is an organization with a “shared consciousness,” a phrase coined by General Stan McChrystal.

Next, it is critical to clarify roles and expectations. Oftentimes, the roles and responsibilities people typically fill in ‘normal’ circumstances must adapt to moments of chaos. But this shift - call it your wartime footing - can often lead to confusion about who is responsible for what. As leaders, you must clearly delineate these roles and responsibilities so that the team’s effort is focused on solving problems and not the infighting and confusion that can ensue when there’s a misunderstanding about roles.

Clarifying expectations is just as important. The expectations you have to manage can range from a change in working hours (goodbye, 9 to 5; hello 18 hour days) to the quality of acceptable solutions. The latter can be particularly important in these moments, as teams often have to shift their mindset and become comfortable with imperfect plans and solutions. The old adage holds true: don’t let perfect become the enemy of good.


Main Effort




In closing, remember that COMPLEXITY is marked by overwhelming amounts of information and options, in many ways the opposite of UNCERTAINTY. The mark of a great leader in complex environments is her ability to make the complex elegantly simple. She quickly zeroes her team in on the information most critical to success, uses her experience to bring context to the moment, and develops clarity of main effort, information, roles, and expectations. The ability to do this lies in experience - both lived and learned. Remember, leaders have a responsibility to prepare themselves for any scenario - because their teams are counting on them.

Here are a few key takeaways for decoding complexity:

  1. Leaders have an obligation to learn from the past in addition to their own direct experience. Immerse yourself in learning opportunities so that you have context for any situation that might arise, and with it, a framework for how to navigate them.

  2. Don’t fall victim to analysis paralysis. Remember, there are 288 billion possible combinations of a chess board after only four moves by each player. Second-order consequence analysis of each move has 900 scenarios to evaluate - but always remember that most of them are bad! Use experience to quickly zero in on good options and evaluate them swiftly

  3. Your team may become overwhelmed, which means you cannot. Quickly sift through the situation’s variables and help them focus on what matters most.

  4. Clarity, clarity, clarity. Your job is to make things crystal clear. Remember the acronym MIRE: Main Effort, Information, Roles, Expectations. If your team is 100% certain of those then they won’t be wasting effort.

Be sure to purchase a copy of Jake's best-selling memoir "Once A Warrior," available here.

Jake Wood is cofounder and CEO of Team Rubicon, a nonprofit organization that utilizes the skills of military veterans to deploy disaster response teams. Under Wood’s leadership, Team Rubicon has responded to over 700 disasters since the 2010 Haiti earthquake and grown from eight to 130,000 members. Team Rubicon has been finished in the top three of the Nonprofit Times’ “Top Nonprofit To Work For in America” lists three years in a row. Wood is a leading veterans’ advocate who has briefed President Obama on veterans’ issues, met with former Presidents Bush and Clinton on disaster response and testified before the Senate. As a Sergeant in the United States Marine Corps, Wood deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan as a Scout Sniper and earned the Navy-Marine Commendation Medal. His best-selling memoir "Once A Warrior" was published in 2020.

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