Thursday, January 4, 2007

U-curve and simplicity at the other side of complexity

A few years ago I came across the concept of a 'U - curve' in anthropology. The basic idea is something like this: Many phenomena follow a pattern that resembles a 'U' - shaped curve over a period of time. They start in one state (i.e. in a particular manner/fashion), then gradually move towards the other end (i.e. the opposite manner/fashion/state) and then they come back to the original state at a higher level/plane. For example, early humans were naked because they did not have any cloths. Then, over a large span of time, humans moved to the other extreme of very elaborate clothing. Over a period of time this in turn has changed to the recent tendency to wear less cloths. Now if we look only at the outward appearance, the third state looks similar to the first state(wearing less cloths). But the third state is, in essence, very much different from the first state because in third state 'wearing less cloths' is a matter of choice which was not the case in the first state.

I remembered this concept while I was thinking about 'simplicity at the other side of complexity' which is the theme for this post(and in a broad sense the theme for this blog). In the case of complex non-linear systems (most of the human systems and business contexts are likely to fall in this category) there is simplicity at both sides of the complexity. Of course the apparent/obvious simplicity is 'simplistic' and it often comes out of the inability and/or unwillingness to appreciate the complexity. This leads to quick-fix solutions and fads (which essentially say "follow these 'x' steps to arrive at the solution") that do not really work in the long term.

However there is a simplicity that is achieved after working through the complexity. This simplicity is at the level of patterns underlying complexity. These patterns can be used to manage the complexity effectively. However there are two difficulties:
(1) One has to work through the complexity to uncover these patterns
(2) These patterns lead to 'directionally correct steps' and not to instant solutions
But these difficulties are the dues we have to pay for operating effectively in a complex world. While we can learn/benefit from the patterns discovered by others, often we have to 'rediscover' the patterns ourselves to fully understand/appreciate the patterns. The dynamic nature of the situation and hence the patterns makes it necessity to learn the patterns through personal experience (often the 'hard way'). The novel 'Siddhartha' by Herman Hesse provides a beautiful illustration of this point.

Related Link : See here for more discussion on this topic.


Alex said...

Learning to unlearn- A quote by a co blogger.

Yeah discovery and rediscovery takes one to higher altitudes.

Interesting post.

kasewa said...

Hi Prasad,

This U-curve phenomenon is applicable everywhere, and where I notice it is in learning systems... an organization will never become a learning organization overnight. To set up robust learning systems and processes begins from a simplistic goal of training everybody on everything, going through a lot of flux while content, processes and mindsets/businesses mature, and eventually getting to the stage of mass-career-customization...

Or at least, I hope...

Warm regards


Prasad Kurian said...


Thanks for the comment.


Many variations of the 'U-curve' might be possible when it comes to the 'Training/Learning strategy/approach'. Different organizations might start at different points in the curve (e.g. train everybody, don't invest much in training etc.). Also organizations might go through multiple iterations of the U-curve. Again, there could be 'disruptions' in the curve in the case of particular organizations. Of course, phenomena like 'regression to an earlier state' and 'quantum jump into a higher state' might also take place !

Thanks and Regards


Anonymous said...

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Anonymous said...

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