In 201x, the global financial markets collapsed. Reason: mortgages were given to people who couldn’t afford them. This debt was then repackaged and sold to banks and other institutions as good debt. (“The Big Short” by Michael Lewis is an excellent indictment of this time). However, the bigger question remained. Why didn’t the financial regulator system catch the problem early, while it was still small?

The answer? Complexity.

jack russell dog catching a flying disc in the air , jumping very high after a fast run

In “The Dog and the Frisbee” (pdf), Andrew Haldane, Executive Director Financial Stability at the Bank of England, explains all the things a dog would have to know and understand to catch a Frisbee: wind speed and direction, rotational velocity of the Frisbee, atmospheric conditions, and gravitation. It might require a degree in physics to know how to express the control problem involved in catching the Frisbee.

Yet dogs, without physics degrees, do this everyday. They obey a simple rule/heuristic: “run at a speed so that the angle of the gaze to the frisbee remains constant”. Empiricism and Simplicity. Agile works because it is an Empirical process using constant feedback to update both the work itself and the way we work.

Haldane goes on to show that the financial regulatory system evolved from something simple that many people at a bank could understand, to something only a few people could understand. Eventually it became so complex that no one person understood the system as a whole. The earlier regulatory frameworks worked well in part because many people understood, and therefore many people could spot problems early, before they got too complicated and large to resolve.

As we deal with ever-larger organizations, it’s tempting to say that this increase in complexity is okay because we’re larger. But if financial crisis taught us anything, the answer should be no. The bigger the system, the more important it is to use simple control mechanisms, simple feedback loops, and simple measures that can be understood by all. Decreasing complexity – not increasing it – has to be at the heart of all of our decisions. And coupled with that has to be the ability to respond quickly and change appropriately.


Image attribution: damedeeso, via photodune

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