Cracking Complexity: A book review by Bob Morris

Cracking Complexity: The Breakthrough Formula for Solving Just About Anything Fast
David Benjamin and David Komlos
Nicholas Brealey Publishing (May 2019)

“To every complex problem there is a solution that is simple, neat, and wrong.”  H.L. Mencken

In essence, an algorithm is an unambiguous specification of how to solve a class of problems. Algorithms can perform calculation, data processing, automated reasoning, and other tasks.” In A Human’s Guide to Machine Intelligence, Kartik Hosdanagar explains how they “are shaping our lives and how we can stay in [or regain] control” of our relationships with them.

He observes, “When you think of the word ‘algorithm,’ you might picture a computer crunching numbers according to a formula. But stated quite simply, an algorithm is merely a series of steps one follows to get something done. For example, I follow a series of steps when I make an omelet. You might call it an omelet recipe, but the former engineer in me views it as an omelet algorithm.”

In Cracking Complexity, David Benjamin and David Komlos offer what Marshall Goldsmith characterizes as “a breakthrough formula for solving just about anything fast.” That is, “a step-by-step method to ‘crack’ your biggest challenge…[one] that can solve complex problems quickly.”

According to Benjamin and Komlos, their book  “is about engineering serendipity in the face of complexity. It’s about engineering collisions and ‘controlled explosions’ that release massive amounts of directed human energy that had been previously untapped.”

The formula or — if you prefer — the algorithm is really quite straightforward: follow a series of ten steps in a collaborative effort to solve complex problems that require innovative responses. “These are the confounding head-scratchers with no right answers, only best attempts. There is no straight line to a solution, and you can only know that you’ve found an effective strategy in retrospect. Your complex challenges are never really solved; you grope your way forward and see how it goes.”

Benjamin and Komlos use (rather than abuse) a business narrative format as they focus on key concepts embodied by thee fictitious characters, each of whom personifies — indeed exemplifies — real-world issues in a volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous business world with which most readers can identify. The details of the situation, conflicts, plot developments, and resolution(s) are best revealed in context — within the narrative — but no spoiler alert is needed when I suggest that the insights are far more engaging that the story and the cross-references that develop it.

These are among the passages of greatest interest and value to me, also listed to suggest the scope of David Benjamin and David Komlos’ coverage:

o Meet Our Three Heroes (Pages 6-12)
o The Antagonist (13-15)
o Simple/Complicated vs. Complex (15-17)
o The Lion on the Desk (25-27)
o (The Language of a New Paradigm 35-36)

o The Complexity Formula: Solving for Complexity in 10 Simple Steps (38)
o Compel, Rally, Catalyze (55-58)
o A Question-Building Exercise (64-65)
o How to Choose Requisite Variety (73-75)
o Common Mistakes 84-87)

o The Science of Connection (93-95)
o A compelling example of a complex crisis 108-111)
o The Genetic Code of Complex Challenges 116-119)
o Components of putting people on a collision course (128-137)
o Managing the Collisions (142-143)

o The Secret of Breakthrough Thinking (149-151)
o How to Plan and Prepare for Emergence 161-162)
o Changing How People Interact (168-172)
o Complexity Formula: Three Categories of Action (178-179)
o Alicia (186-189)
o Over to You (193-198)

Readers will also appreciate two appendices that provide valuable material. “Where Else?” suggests other opportunities where you could be applying the Formula and stretching you thinking beyond obvious challenges (Pages 199-208) and “Troubleshooting” provides practical advice with regard to overcoming obstacles and correcting mistakes (209-224).

I commend Benjamin and Komlos on the abundance of information, insights, and counsel they provide when explaining HOW their breakthrough formula can solve almost any problem or answer almost any question faster than would otherwise be possible.

As business leaders now struggle to guide their organizations through VUCA Land, they encounter all manner of complex challenges. Two of the most daunting are asking and then answering the right questions, and, identifying and then solving the right problems. In this context,  I am reminded of two observations. The first is from Peter Drucker: “There is surely nothing quite so useless as doing with great efficiency what should not be done at all.” The second is from Michael Porter: “The essence of strategy is choosing what not to do.”

What David Benjamin and David Komlos characterize as a “formula” is perhaps best viewed as a process that requires identification, evaluation, elimination, and concentration…based on collective judgment in dynamic, often contentious collaboration. The process is most productive if those involved have diverse talents, backgrounds, experiences, and opinions but — key point — shared values and common objectives.

This is precisely what Saint Paul had in mind when referring to “many parts, one body” in one of his first letters to Corinthians, why Abraham Lincoln filled his cabinet with political opponents (his “team of rivals”), and why, more recently, breakthrough results were achieved by the Disney and Pixar animators who created classic animated films, by scientists who worked on the Manhattan Project, by designers at Lockheed’s “Skunk Works,” by technicians at Xerox PARC, and by engineers at the Bell Laboratories.

Most of the material in this book (with appropriate modification, of course) can be of almost any organization, whatever its size and nature may be. Better yet, the “breakthrough formula” can help ordinary people achieve extraordinary results. For owner-CEOs of many (if not most) small companies, complexity poses even greater challenges than it does for C-level executives in Fortune 100 companies.


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