Ray Abide looks at the concepts of detail complexity and dynamic complexity in the context of business continuity planning.
Over an extended period of time, I believe that a conventional instinct is to add more specifics and detail to our business continuity plans. This may be guided by increasing complexity in the subject business or by our improved understanding and planning maturity brought about by plan exercises or experience gained by plan activation during a crisis.
While this increasing detail and texture in the plan may seem to be an improvement or an enhancement, it is only true if the incremental planning addresses the type of complexity that can be reduced or eliminated, in advance.
In Peter Senge’s 1990 book, The Fifth Discipline, an excellent text on the topic of organizational learning, Senge distinguishes between two types of complexity (pages 70-71): detail complexity and dynamic complexity. He defines detail complexity as the sort of complexity with many variables, which is what we typically think of when we think of complex issues. The second type, dynamic complexity, refers to situations where cause and effect are subtle, and where the effects over time of interventions are not obvious. Traditional planning methods are not effective in dealing with dynamic complexity as dynamic complexity is much more qualitative in nature than is detail complexity. The variables and their interrelationships do not readily lend themselves to a solution provided by a comprehensive task list or documented instruction set.
Before I read Senge’s book, I referred to the business continuity method of addressing dynamic complexity by developing a plan that was more of a roadmap than a recipe. The idea is that the roadmap would guide a recovery team allowing their expertise and experience to navigate ambiguity whereas a recipe infers that this is unnecessary if the team strictly adheres to an all-inclusive recovery plan or recipe.