Economy of Thought

Complexity is Expensive

Photo by Kevin Ku on Unsplash

This is the third post on defining complexity in the onboarding series. I highlighted before that, in a complex system, the relationship between cause and effect is knowable only in hindsight. Additionally, our constraints will change on the timescale under consideration. A sense-making heuristic is to probe-sense-respond using exaptive practices. In this post, I’ll highlight that this is expensive.

Finite Capacity

Our ability to think is, on the one hand, vast. On the other hand, we can only think so much and think only so fast. Ultimately, we have a finite amount of time to think. When dealing with finite resources, we can frame things in terms of an economy. There are two complementary definitions that I have in mind:

“efficient and concise use of nonmaterial resources (such as effort, language, or motion)”

“the arrangement or mode of operation of something” 

“Economy.” Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, Accessed on 10 Mar 2021.

When applied to thinking, we can imagine an Economy of Thought, that is, the arrangement of our thinking in order to make efficient and concise use of the finite amount of time available.

The Expense

From the frame of Economy of Thought, it turns out that thinking in the Complex Cynefin domain is the most expensive.

In the Ordered domains (Clear and Complicated), constraints do not change. I can come to know something and then I can rely on that knowledge not changing. “Things fall” is an unchanging knowledge. Logging into my email account is unchanging knowledge (on the relevant timescale). Traffic laws guiding me how to drive a car is unchanging knowledge (on the relevant timescale). Through the framing of Economy of Thought, I can learn Clear and Complicated things once, and rely on them from then on.

Chaotic domain is demanding, but it is transient and tends to resolve into other domains.

In the Complex domain, well… here be dragons. Constraints change, and they can change due to our actions. I can come to know something, only for that knowledge to change once I look away (imagine playing a visually demanding sport with your eyes closed). In order to remain relevant in the Complex domain, I need to be continuously engaged. I need to always look for the latest changes to update my knowledge. I have to be in a constant feedback loop with the domain to keep up to date knowledge. I need to keep up to date knowledge because the knowledge changes when I don’t look. This is expensive.

A Choice

Considering the world through the frame of Cynefin, I see the world in the Complex domain. The world is complex, therefore I must constantly probe-sense-respond to make sense of the world. However, the frame of Economy of Thought offers me a choice. While I can choose to expend all of me on all of the complexity of the world, I can also choose not to do that. I can approximate parts of the world as Complicated or Clear. In fact, all of us do this constantly. Our brains evolved to predict the patterns in time and space that allow for these Complicated and Clear shortcuts. Having a Cynefin frame of reference highlights that I can make a deliberate choice in how to engage with the world. I can choose to engage in complexity and maintain a tight feedback loop where required. At the same time I can summarize other complexity and treat it as Clear or Complicated if I don’t think constraints will change. I can be economical. I can arrange my thinking to make efficient and concise use of the finite amount of time available.

What Do You Think?

What’s your usual approach towards the world? Is it Clear, Complicated, Complex? Let me know in the comments.

Next Up

Next, I’ll write about how to decide when to take a Clear or Complicated shortcut: Aporia.



  1. Pingback: Cynefin Complexity | No Motherships
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