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Complexity & Planning & Control

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IMG_7233 Snickers

Recently I stumbled over two extremely complex scenarios which I doubt can be planned. But nonetheless they do work! This made me think …

FIRST: A Snickers bar which I bought in a mountain hut in Nepal. The hut is in a remote valley, 5300m above the sea, in the middle of the Himalaya, multiple days of hiking away from the next market. And the market also can only be reached by foot: 3 days to the closest airstrip. 7 days to the closest road. And from there it’s another 1 day adventure jeep ride to real civilization, the nations capital Kathmandu. to sum it up: The Snickers bar and I were really at the end of the world.
The Snickers bar was produced in the Netherlands. So there must be a very long and complex delivery chain in between the factory and the mountain hut. Nobody, not the mountain hut owner, not the Snickers factory nor anybody in between actually understands the entire delivery chain! And if a truck somewhere on the way has a flat tire and gets delayed a bit, who takes care to ensure there are Snickers in the hut? – The answer is simple: Nobody! So, how does it work then? Which are the clues we can get from this to handle complex tasks?

  • clue #1: Cut into small steps. Actually nobody oversees the entire delivery chain. And it is not even necessary! Everybody only cares about where to get the Snickers from and where to sell it and how do I do the transportation in between. So actually the big chain is cut down into many small steps. Each step is so small that one person can easily handle it without computer. And the interface between the steps is very simple and standardized (marketplace; goods for money exchange).
  • clue #2: Redundancy. Actually there are many stands on the market where the hut owner can buy the Snickers bars from and there are different ships going from the Netherlands to India and there are many trucks driving goods from India to Nepal and so on. If one has a problem, it won’t break the delivery chain.
  • clue #3: Flexibility. And even if there is a single point of failure right now (eg only one path to the hut) and it breaks, then immediately a new solution will be found (people walk somewhere in the wild and establish a new path; or the Snickers comes by helicopter). And in the very worst case the hut owner will pamper his clients with some other food or will just tell them an awesome story or sing a song to keep them entertained and collect some money.

Actually the entire supply chain is not planned ever. It purely works by offer and demand.

SECOND: The other example is a Kino Kabaret event which works like this: There are a bunch of film enthusiasts like cameramen, actors, directors, musicians, editors, etc. They all introduce themselves at the beginning of the event and then some people introduce an idea for a short film. And then there are 48 hours to produce films, drink beer and have a great time!
The challenge is that for every film you need a lot of people (camera, sounds, actors, director, editor, etc) and equipment (location, cars, camera, sound, computers for editing, cloth, etc). With a very detailed plan it may be possible to arrange all this to be at the right place at the right time. However things also get delayed, people or equipment are not there when you need them, equipment gets broken, etc. All the possible options of what could go wrong cannot be planned and is not manageable. It’s just way to complex! However still a lot of films get produced. Sometimes even more than initially announced!

  • clue #3 (again): Flexibility. This is the main thing for the Kino Kabaret. You cannot find an actress for your love film? Then just have two male actors, means a gay couple! In case there is no sound guy, just explain somebody quickly how to do it. In case now is a bad time, then just shift it to another time.
  • clue #4: Self-regulation. Basically in the Kino Kabaret events everybody is empowered to do everything. Including just coming up with an idea for a film by himself! Whenever people got nothing to do they hang around in the hub and have beer with others and together with the others they start being creative and come up with ideas for films and then will shot this film, so won’t be bored. They automatically get back to being productive. On the other hand if there are two many people who want to film something, some will give up and will then be available for the other films. This works because the people are empowered to come up with new film ideas and because in case people idle they hang around in groups which makes them creative. Pretty smart setup!

Both examples are things which are so highly complex that they are very very hard to plan and definitely a plan wouldn’t fit it into any single persons brain. And because it’s so hard and at least on a Kino Kabaret nobody wants to do it … We just find another way to solve it!
But in our normal daily life at work, at home or at a birthday party we try to plan everything. Why?
More often than necessary we try to plan something big and complex and get frustrated.
Apparently we somehow have a tendency to plan things.
Let’s take a step back: Maybe planning is not always the right tool to ensure things get done?
I think it is definitely worth thinking about other options from time to time!
Get inspired by the clues we found in the examples above …

Oh, probably one thing we like about planning is the feeling of control.
But let’s be honest, some things are just not controllable in every detail …
We may be able to set the direction and the rest is trust and flexibility and redundancy … 🙂