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Collaboration in the ‘century of complexity’

“I think the next century will be the century of complexity.” That was the response Stephen Hawking gave to a journalist at the dawn of this century in January 2000.

One fifth of the century in and we have seen plenty of evidence that Hawking was right.

We have seen the devastating rise of global terrorism, two global economic crises, the biggest public health pandemic in living memory, major wars, an unprecedented number of large natural disasters, the fastest level of technological change – and the list goes on. What also has become clearer is that these are complex issues that cannot be understood in isolation. They all connect much more than some are willing to admit. That is where complexity comes into the picture.

At this point, after two decades of global battering, we are faced with an open dilemma: should we undergo major change and focus on executing societal pivoting away from values, beliefs and attitudes adopted an over the past three centuries of human development, or retain things as they are and increase our capacity for better adaptation? Finding solutions to complex problems is further complicated by human fixation on simple answers.

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“I think the next century will be the century of complexity.” – Stephen Hawking (January 2000)

Looking back at the past 20 years we should be able to recognise a destructive pattern. This is not very comforting, unless we also recognise here an opportunity to approach a future that acknowledges complexity as a paradigm where collaborative practice is of strategic importance.

Collaboration has emerged as a more strategic practice over the past 25-30 years. Its fluctuating prominence has mirrored major disturbances. After each catastrophic disaster, we witnessed an increase in references to collaboration as a necessary strategy for recovery. Each time economic conditions worsened, collaboration was identified as a strategy and useful tool to stimulate value creation.

Despite these references, collaboration on a strategic level remains under-utilised. So collaboration has become somewhat of a ‘fixer’ strategy – something we rely on in difficult times but not when all seems well with the world.

The obvious omission is that businesses, governments, not for profits, and other institutions struggle to notice complexity; instead focusing on symptoms that are easy to detect. So, each moment of crisis is treated as an isolated event rather than part of a larger, complex pattern.

For decades, complex problems have been known by another closely related concept – ‘wicked problems’. Expert in the of science of design, Professor Horst Rittel, who coined the term, recognised that strategic collaboration is an unavoidable part of the solution.

Businesses tend also to collaborate periodically. Collaboration is often only part of a business’ culture for a short burst of time until the collaborating partners are requested to power down and return to standby mode. Now, imagine if we treated other parts of business like that – say communication and marketing, or business development?  Unthinkable.

Collaborating on a strategic level means being ‘on’ all the time. The complexity within which the marketplace functions is constantly unfolding. Which is why collaboration is a strategy that can add far more value in both the short and long term. As has been seen time after time, responding to complex situations is near impossible without cross discipline engagement. Rare are organisations that have all they need internally to be able to face complex environments. Collaborative practice, when treated as a strategic tool, can make a big difference.