A Complex World

In Hindsight

Photo by David Kovalenko on Unsplash

As I shared before, my primary principle is: We want to thrive in a complex world. In this post I will elaborate on what I mean by complex.

How to Organize a Children’s Party

First, a three minute introduction to complexity by Dave Snowden:

I want to discuss systems in the world. For this particular discussion, I want to highlight a specific framing through which I will analyze these systems: what is the relationship between cause and effect?1 Specifically, are we able to determine causes for effects we observe?

Non-Complex Systems

Dave Snowden highlighted three types of systems in the Children’s Party video: Chaotic Systems, Ordered Systems, and Complex Systems. I’ll start with Ordered Systems, which are most familiar. 

In the framing of cause and effect, an Ordered system is one where the relationship between cause and effect can be determined. This relationship is either clear, or can be discovered through analysis. 

An example of a clear relationship would be you clearly knowing that if I hold out an apple in my hand and let it go, it will fall to the ground. It is clear that gravity (or “things fall”) combined with me letting go is the cause of the apple hitting the ground. The relationship between my letting go and the apple hitting the ground is clear to any reasonable person.

An example of a relationship requiring analysis would be me going to a car mechanic to figure out what’s wrong with my car. If the problem is not clear to the mechanic, they would run some tests, analyze the problem, and likely determine the cause of the problem, thus discovering the cause and effect relationship in the system (my car).

For Chaotic Systems, a relationship cannot be determined between cause and effect. Imagine that I am walking in the park and the trees around me start exploding, this would be an example of a chaotic system. I don’t know why there are explosions, and it does not matter. I must act to extract myself from the situation.


In a Complex System, the relationship between cause and effect has a fascinating property, it is only knowable in hindsight. This may be difficult to imagine the first time, but I think you’ll notice it is quite common once pointed out.

If one year ago, I were to ask you what you would be doing right now (reading this), would you be able to predict it? What will you be doing exactly one year from now? That is an impossible question to answer. Now, if instead I were to ask you about the various things over the past year that led you to this moment, you’d be able to tell me (I assume you have a really good memory 😄). This is an example of a relationship between cause and effect that is only knowable in hindsight. This is the nature of cause and effect in a complex world.

What Do You Think?

Do you have examples of complex systems in your life? Do you have examples of systems that are not complex? Let me know in the comments.

Next Up

In this post, I described complexity through the framing of cause and effect. Next, I’ll introduce other frames to help distinguish complexity: Cynefin Complexity.

1 I am sharing small pieces of Dave Snowden’s Cynefin framework, which I’ll write about and link to more directly in the future.



  1. Pingback: Onboarding to a Software Team: In Three Parts | No Motherships
  2. Pingback: Optimize For Learning… | No Motherships
  3. Pingback: Cynefin Complexity | No Motherships
  4. Pingback: How Complex Systems Fail | No Motherships

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s