Closing the Complexity Gap: Can ‘Design Thinking’ Make A Difference?

July 7, 2016


Did David Cameron consider the full spectrum of geopolitical, social and economic fallout when he invited a referendum? What about Australia’s sitting prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull - how many moves ahead did his future-proof strategy take into account when he called for a double dissolution election?


The current environment is much like the game of chess. With only 32 pieces operating under a simple set of rules, the complexity of the chess universe is astounding. It is estimated that the total number of possible games is greater than the number of quarks and electrons in the entire cosmos!


Like chess, life’s complexity comes not only from the multiplicity of choices inherent in individual moves, but also in the way each individual and the moves they make effect another, the way each move depends on the previous one and how the possibilities multiply each time a move is made. Do our political, social and economic leaders possess the capacities to both play and see the full complexity of the game?


Theo Dawson PhD, Founder of Lectica, Inc., refers to this inability to see the multiplicity of moves as, ‘the complexity gap’ ( At Lectica, they’ve researched this gap in terms of the relationship between complexity demands of leadership positions and a leader’s ability to meet those demands. Their research with the U.S. Federal government substantiates the finding that on average, “leadership positions that entail greater complexity perform well below the task demands of their job. This means that the average leader is likely to need help to close the gap.” As designers, our job is to provide a pathway toward closing the complexity gap in real-time, problem-solving situations.


One example of this is in a project I am consulting on with a business that delivers management development to educational leaders. The project is to build a recruitment strategy that considers the skillsets AND mindsets of recruits, as well as the conditions that are most likely to influence their ability to generate sustained, positive impact with their clients.


We’ve decided to lead with a ‘Design Thinking’ approach, which includes extensive perspective-seeking via interviews across the business grounded in an inquiry called, what are the capacities AND conditions that will generate sustained impact for the business and the educational communities they support?


The client’s challenge is to allow the information gleaned to inform next steps, rather than predict those moves in advance. Bringing genuine curiosity into the process as well as a willingness to not know demonstrates an early move toward closing the complexity gap. My role is to hold both process AND outcome with equal measure so the client can explore the territory, make discoveries and arrive safely at a destination.


For this particular client, the discovery process has also facilitated an interesting shift in perspective toward a more nuanced distinction between replication and reproduction. Consider the difference between a printing machine replicating images and a eukaryotic cell reproducing itself. As long as the ink settings are correct, the printer will replicate exact copies of the original. Cell reproduction, however, is a different story.


Lets look at stem cells. As they divide, a new distinct unit forms that includes the exact copy of the structures of its maker AND its own emergent organising structure. In other words, this new cell has the core DNA of the original cell AND is functionality adaptive to its new environment, thus making stem cells the core unit from which all other cells in the body can form (liver, skin, protein, brain etc.) In the case of recruitment, a robust and adaptive criteria requires both ‘core DNA’ elements AND an understanding of the dynamic systems influencing performance.


As for my client, she now recognises that reproducing the success of her current team is less like printing and more like a complex, autopoietic process capable of providing the generative feedback needed to produce sustained, system-wide impact. Her ability to think in this way signals a closing of the complexity gap.


Is ‘Design Thinking’ the solution to every problem? Of course not. Should it take the lead in every strategic process? Probably not. However, it can provide a container inside of which lasting change in how leaders approach problem solving can occur. In this way, it makes a powerful contribution toward closing the complexity gap in ways that are both accessible and divergent.


Until next time, this is Susanna Carman inviting you to step into the unknown with the spirit of curious inquiry… you never know where discovery will take you. For more information about ‘Design Thinking’ and Leadership Development, please visit

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