It’s (partially) complicated

In my professional work, I think a lot about the differences between simple and complex systems.

As I wrote in my earlier article “It’s (not) complicated”:

“We all understand simple mechanical systems like pulleys. Complex systems, like rainforests, however, work differently. They exhibit unique characteristics, including modularity, homeostasis, self-organization, resilience, emergence, non-linearity, inter-dependence with other complex systems, and collapse.”

Some systems actually are complicated, though, or at least partially complicated—more like a Rube Goldberg machine than a rainforest or a pulley.

The human olfactory system is a good example. Biophysicist Luca Turin has argued persuasively that some defining aspects of human smell rely on quantum physics (a complex system), but at the same time, that’s not the full story:

“[Dyson’s proposal] is clearly an extra-scientific argument, which appeals to a metaphysical sense of elegance. The hold of such concepts is greater than one might suppose. Physicists in particular prize ‘simplicity’ and ‘beauty’ in a theory. In biology, by contrast, there are more examples of what can only be described as ‘contraptions’…” – The Secret of Scent

You know where I’m going with this…

Businesses are a lot like noses.

They include simple, complex, and complicated aspects at the same time. And though these different kinds of systems are always linked, they run on different rules and thrive under different conditions:

  • Simple systems get healthier when they get more efficient. Think of a pulley with less friction, or a customer service request that gets routed and resolved more quickly.
  • Complex systems get healthier when they get more complex. Think of a coral reef with more varied flora and fauna filling every crevice; a romantic couple that reaches a deeper level of shared commitment and understanding; or a human brain making higher-level, novel connections between diverse topics.
  • Complicated systems get healthier when we respect their unique quirks. Think of the instantiating, idiosyncratic design choices of a software program you use every day; the fussy but real criteria of the analysts or standards groups in your industry; or the parliamentary rules that govern the legislative process in your home country.

Organizations can make major errors when they mix up these different kinds of systems… by streamlining complexities, charging ahead while ignoring real-world complications, or floating 40,000 feet above practical realities.

Trying to make a complex system more efficient is a particular danger, since this is equivalent to replacing a rainforest with a pesticide-dependent, monoculture orchard. Efficiency is a lot like cyanide… it smells tasty but it can kill you if you’re not careful.

Here are some observations that I personally use to understand new topics and situations quickly.

1. Goals are simple.

Businesses exist in complex, complicated, and chaotic environments. But a business’s goals are always simple: goals must be focused in order to create focus. Simple systems get healthier when they get more efficient, so every organization must maximize the efficient execution of its goals.

Knowing this in advance saves me a lot of time whenever I’m trying to learn a new company or industry. I can ask the leaders of a company in a straightforward way what its goals are, and I can evaluate based on what I know from other contexts whether those goals make sense.

I shared in an earlier series the following framework, which I implicitly use whenever I’m trying to make goal execution more efficient:

An expert can always quickly assess whether an organization is grounded in clear principles and appropriate methodologies. Errors here are pretty easy to spot and verbalize.

Once we’re down at the level of processes, less expertise is required. If we already know what we’re essentially trying to do, it’s easy to set metrics for how to do it better using internal or external benchmarks. For example, if you’re a marketer and want to know the latest typical email open rates or landing page bounce rates for your industry or campaign type, that information is publicly available and always a click away.

Selecting a new tool might seem daunting, in part because the pros and cons of, say, Drift vs. Intercom, are relatively abstract. But there is no right answer to anything in the abstract. If we’re clear on own unique goals, situation, and criteria, then the evaluation can be quick. It’s the criteria definition—i.e., the goal-setting—not the tool evaluation, that takes the most time.

2. Strategic work is complex.

Complex systems all work the same way, so we should always expect emergence, chaos, redundancy, and creative destruction in industry competition, financial markets, digital ecosystems, and social trends. For example, in the fragrance industry, it probably would have been very difficult a few years ago to predict exactly that digital influencers and solo chemists would find each other to start designing and distributing niche perfumes… but this is the kind of emergent phenomenon we could have easily predicted.

Organizational cultures are also complex and thus tend to fall into predictable patterns of dysfunction. The biggie I always look for is that all organizations try to preserve their blind spots and the status quo, as do all CEOs. They do this not because they are inept, but because they are human. Humans are complex, and complex systems try to preserve homeostasis.

While trying to preserve homeostasis, complex systems also must react to new stimuli. Complex systems get healthier when they get more complex, which means higher levels of integration and consilience. The details vary, but the patterns are consistent. An expert in organizational psychology, financial markets, risk arbitrage, data science, digital media strategy, or any other complex domain can often assess very quickly why and how an organization needs to evolve to a higher level integration and dynamic complexity. These perspectives are rarely appreciated initially because the homeostatic nature of the existing systems will always try to reject them. This itself is predictable and should never be taken personally.

3. Constraints are complicated.

Rainforests are complex systems, but let’s say that this particular rainforest has a cliff twenty miles to the south, and then a big town on its northern border, and that burnt area where lightning struck last year…

Real-world constraints bound the landscape, and they tend to be complicated. A nice literal example of this: much of the gameplay of my favorite board game Dominion is either simple or complex, but the basic rules that define the game are complicated. There are only so many cards, and they are laid out in a certain way depending on the number of players, etc. etc. etc.

Here are some complicated topics I regularly encounter:

  • Know-how in a given industry
  • Know-who in a given industry
  • The lingo of any given industry
  • The defining quirks of (otherwise complex) software applications

For my own benefit, I’ve created simple and repeatable procedures to ascend the learning curve for each of these topics as fast as possible. I’ve summed these up in a follow-on post: “Drawing the owl.”


In my executive coaching work, I often invite clients to consider not just what they are paying attention to, but how they are paying attention.

I personally find that my thinking changes markedly depending on whether I’m working with a simple, complex, or complicated system:

  • Simple: Goals are simple, and I find that when I’m attending to my goals, my mind gets very clear, my curiosity and focus very high. Focusing on goals produces dopamine and pulls me out of competing worries and distractions. When goals are vague, arbitrary, or conflicting, I find my attention bounces from topic to topic, and it’s hard to focus. I also find myself checking in with my emotions and body more to reflect or self-soothe, which is how we are wired to understand complex or complicated situations, not simple ones. My own attention patterns, in other words, are a clue as to whether goal-setting and goal management in a given company are optimally efficient. As much as possible, we want everyone in an organization to have clarity and a flow state when it comes to their goals.
  • Complex: When I am trying to understand complex systems, I find myself implicitly using what Daniel Kahneman calls the “System 2” brain. I scan for nuances and hidden signals. Intellectually, I look for what I typically think of as “negative spaces” or “shadow material,” including indirect competition, trends and opportunities in adjacent domains, and conversations that can’t be held by the current internal or external hegemony. I also connect to my emotions and physical sensations. If I’m trying to understand how a specific company culture works, I may notice myself feeling other people’s feelings for them, since what can’t be discussed is often either projected, avoided, or enacted interpersonally. My understanding of complex systems, in other words, combines textbook knowledge of resilience with spidey-sense intuition based on experience.
  • Complicated: When I’m trying to learn something complicated, I find that I am initially bored and avoidant. One of the mental tricks I learned from David Rock’s book Your Brain at Work is to choose to get really curious whenever I’m feeling bored and need to pay closer attention. Curiosity produces dopamine, which makes it easier for me to focus. Coffee also stimulates dopamine, so when it’s time to learn something complicated, I often have a cup of coffee in hand.

Yes, sometimes I’m mindful, sometimes I’m caffeinated.

I’m complicated that way.


Note: This article is the concluding post in a six-part series about mastery.

“On the EMI label, there is a classic compilation titled Les Introuvables du chant Verdien, which is almost guaranteed to transform even the huskiest young fan into a tiresome old opera queen who complains that no one can sing Verdi anymore.”
– Alex Ross, Listen to This

Leontyne Price is a treasure in the world of opera and the world in general.

She was featured recently in an excellent documentary on the making of the Metropolitan Opera House at Lincoln Center and in February celebrated her 92th birthday. This new attention inspired me to check out some of her signature performances, especially her work in Verdi’s Aida.

Here is a video from early in her career:

And another from her farewell performance at the Met in 1985:

And one more, from the same night, the Act 3 aria “O patria mia”:

This last clip captures a stunning moment in opera history—full of love, sadness, and gratitude uniting the audience and the performer.

I watched this entire opera recently on Met on Demand, and although I fell asleep once at a live performance of Aida, this one is thoroughly engaging. It’s also a fascinating time capsule of NYC in the 1980s. During the second act’s Triumphal March there’s an eyebrow-raising homoerotic fight dance, followed by chorus of women in blackface. Opera has a reputation for being stuffy, but in real life, it can be really, really weird.

Fast forward thirty-three years. Another famous soprano, Anna Netrebko, recently performed the same role at the Met to thunderous reviews. (It’s also available on Met on Demand.) Unlike Leontyne Price, Netrebko did not make her early reputation with dramatic roles. She started out as a well-regarded lyric soprano, famous for bel canto and the lighter side of Mozart and Puccini.

Then—suddenly, it seemed—she started pursuing weightier roles like Lady Macbeth, and she has moved on steadily to almost all the big parts requiring shake-the-rafters voices: Tosca, Turandot, Norma, Aida, Isolde.

In her 2014 Macbeth performance, part of the joy is watching her revel in wickedness and play completely against type. It’s frightening and deliciously entertaining.

Her 2018 role debut in Aida at the Met though was less triumphant.

During “Ritorna Vincitor,” where Leontyne Price stood still in the “park and bark” style of the time and reeled in the audience purely with her voice and emotional commitment, Netrebko frets about the stage, dissipating her energy. The sound too is less lovely. (She’s had better evenings recently with this piece in other productions.)

Her performance of “O patria mia” likewise suffers by comparison:

It’s another big moment in opera history—a major star, taking on a major role at the Met for the first time. But the acting is not fully convincing, and the musical line, instead of hovering just at the edge of the sublime, hovers sometimes just at the edge of failure.

And yet the crowd applauds. Many reviews commented that Netrebko was the first to really own this role since Leontyne Price. I’ve watched both performances, and honestly: I don’t see it. I don’t get it.

Really, I think I do though. Netrebko is after a different goal than Leontyne Price. She is a 21st century media star, not a mid-to-late 20th century opera singer. She is like a Madonna or Lady Gaga of the opera world, and the excitement watching her at this stage of her career is less about savoring how perfect and polished her work is but how risky and gleeful she is about breaking conventions and expectations. She’s becoming herself, publicly. Like Björk or Beyoncé, she knows how to create an event. The audience is with her, and as a Netrebko fan myself, I most of all want to see her do what she wants to do.

At the same time, part of me feels sad that no one can really sing Verdi anymore.

Eye on the prize

Organizations must be very clear about the results that they want. A better mood in the shop, hitting the Q2 numbers, signing a contract with a strategic partner, getting another round of investment or a positive mention in the press are all good things. But are they the right good things?

An important principle is that we begin with the result in mind. Good strategic plans start with the goals; good coaching is likewise goal-focused. As David Allen said in Getting Things Done: “You can do anything, but not everything.” What is it we want to do?

Do we want to be a rock star… or an opera star? Do we want to sing Mozart, or sing Aida? Do we want to sing it perfectly or do we want to sing it “our” way? Or do we want to sing and perfect our craft for the sheer joy of it, whether we ever become a star at all?

Opera singers have a lot to teach us.


Note: This article is part five in an ongoing series about mastery.

Renée Fleming is one of the most famous living opera stars who currently performs. Some of her master classes recently gurgled to the top of my YouTube home page, and they are a treat to watch.


Fleming is gracious and effective in this video, and the student is excellent. But something that struck me about Fleming’s approach is how often she focuses on tools: first, a straw to connect the student to her ribcage and support, then a pencil, to help her find a higher and more effortless vocal resonance, and in passing, the idea of singing while lying down.

This focus on tools differs from the other master classes I’ve posted in this series. Thomas Hampson’s principles were a quick-get but hard to remember in the moment. Matthew Aucoin’s methodologies provided structure but could lead to unpredictable discoveries and decisions. Joyce DiDonato’s processes could guide one away from familiar habits and into better-if-more-difficult ones.

By contrast, tools just make everything easier.

If you already know what you’re doing.

And if you choose the right tools.

The right tool—for the job

It’s tough keeping up with tools these days. The technology ecosystems we use to do our jobs are changing constantly. It’s impossible for any organization, consultant, or marketer to keep up with every tool.

Specializing in a popular tool is helpful in the short term but dangerous in the long term. E.g., if you specialize in SugarCRM or Tessitura as a CRM system, are you also staying abreast of everything Salesforce can do? If you specialize in Tableau, how will that skillset port to Google Data Studio? And what new tools are emerging?

A more sustainable long-term focus instead of “knowing the right tool” is knowing the right tool for the job. When the job to be done is clearly specified, the right tool is frequently obvious.

Admittedly, straws and pencils are pretty simple tools, compared to technology platforms like Airtable, Atlassian, Salesforce, Marketo, Hubspot, PowerBI, and others. Those take longer to roll out and for organizations to adapt to them. A leader must guide the implementation or else the culture reverts to whatever tools and habits are already-familiar.

In the video above, Renée Fleming knew immediately what tool was needed because she’s Renée Fleming. She grokked the full situation and reached for the solution that she knew would work, and applied it skillfully and quickly. When choosing important tools, be sure to talk to a master (in operatic singing) with broad and recent experience, and not just a specialist (in pencils).

Be a Renée Fleming, or find a Renée Fleming.

Then you’ll pick the right tool and get the results you’re looking for.
Next article: Results


Note: This article is part four in an ongoing series about mastery.

I have a friend who loves Leonard Bernstein’s Candide… and we’re still friends!

Okay, so Candide is magnificent in its way, but I’ve been slow—very slow—to warm up to it. The show’s music is as intricate and fresh as Bernstein’s earlier musical West Side Story. But without Stephen Sondheim’s lyrics and Jerome Robbins’ choreography—and shackled to Voltaire’s relentlessly episodic plot—the play often never fully takes flight. I’m one of those people who thinks of Candide as an “A for effort” musical like Chess that just doesn’t work.

As Seth Rudensky drily notes, the script is neither (all that) funny nor (all that) interesting, but the music is captivating, and so productions of Candide keep getting mounted. One of the score’s challenges is that it’s exceptionally difficult to sing, much of it more suited to the opera house than the Broadway stage. The late and legendary Barbara Cook could pull off eight performances of “Glitter and Be Gay” per week, but that combination of talent and stamina is beyond the reach of most mortals.

These days, most productions of Candide are at the opera house. And although I knew that, I still was pleasantly surprised and intrigued to see leading opera singer and teacher Joyce DiDonato recently coach a young tenor through the song—or rather, aria— “Candide’s Lament.”

This is an important melody that recurs throughout the play. It leads directly into the prismatic ending “Make Our Garden Grow” which, after “Glitter and Be Gay,” is the big moment that everyone is waiting for. The ending of Candide is thrilling, and for the big ending to work, this cri de coeur earlier in the show has to be touching and memorable.

The singer in the clip above comes from a musical theater background, and he makes a brave go of the piece. He’s done his work. He makes the song emotionally real and is courageous in showing tears and despair. He hits the notes and knows where he is, who he is, and what he is trying to say. But by opera standards, his performance is not successful.

DiDonato then coaches him into discovering how the piece can be performed with a continuous legato line, uninterrupted by consonants, pauses, or tears. In opera, the howl of despair can be conveyed to the audience purely through shimmering, sliding sound. As DiDonato says:

“That idea of the heart being poured out to her… It’s always this legato […] reach to her. And you’re going to reach to infinity to because she’s gone. So let the voice go to infinity with this.

The music is suffering here… You don’t have to do a lot… I am glad you make that choice and you make it committed, but play with what it feels like when you don’t do that, and you feel it, and you hold it, and the real tragedy is you can’t let go yet.”

For opera, learning to sing every note in a piece with a consistent legato is a key process to ensure a successful performance. In master classes online, you’ll see teachers like Lucas Meachem and Stephanie Blythe repeatedly stop their students (who already sound fantastic) to make sure that every note is legato and every note has vibrato.

Legato singing isn’t a principle. And it’s not a methodology (a flexible system of questions). It’s a process: it’s something you need to do. You literally have to do it phoneme by phoneme, and note by note.

Processes are executional and lead to predictable results.

Processes in practice

By necessity, all organizations are process-heavy. Work must be ritualized and codified into repeatable playbooks to ensure consistency and efficiency as organizations scale, as the complexity of the work scales, and as challenges scale.

Effective processes cannot be put in place without having clear principles or methodologies first. For example, performance review processes without defined values and behaviors—or daily scrum meetings without a commitment to agile development—will lead to chaos and tension.

If we find ourselves achieving the wrong goals (“achieving failure”), we probably have the wrong processes. Singing Candide in a musical theater style is a valid goal, but a different one than singing Candide in an operatic style. If we want to sing Candide at the opera hall, we have to have a process in place to make sure that every note shines. Joyce DiDonato upsets this one performer’s groove, but she helps him find a new groove that will lead to even better results.

Processes don’t make work easier. They make the *right* work easier.
Next article: Tools


Note: This article is part three in an ongoing series about mastery.

When the LA Opera recently announced its 2019-2020 season, a major coup was the world premiere of Eurydice by Matthew Aucoin. I am very excited about this opera and Matthew Aucoin’s music in general.

Though, to be honest, as of today, I haven’t heard any of it.

A quick explanation is in order: Matthew Aucoin rocketed to fame in the last several years as an unusually gifted young opera composer and conductor. His best-known work Crossing—an opera about Walt Whitman—has played only in small houses so hasn’t been seen in that many cities, or by that many audiences.

But even if Aucoin’s music is low-profile, the buzz around it and him is consistently strong; his conducting work is varied and impressive; and in public appearances, podcasts, tweets, and talks, he always comes across as generous, perceptive, and passionate about opera in a way that’s instantly engaging and infectious.

His warmth and intelligence are both on display in the following master class, recorded at the Music Academy of the West:


I watched this entire two-hour video in one sitting and may watch it again soon: it’s that good.

As a composer, Aucoin understands music in a unique way, and in the video above, he guides a soprano through the difficult work of turning Desdemona’s sad meditation from Verdi’s Otello into a journey of terror and despair. He similarly guides a baritone through making Mozart’s famous catalogue aria from Don Giovanni pulse with life. Aucoin doesn’t just know these songs, he understands deeply how they work.

The third student ventures into trickier territory with an aria from Stravinsky’s mid-20th-century opera The Rake’s Progress. The student is perhaps a bit nervous, but Aucoin is fairly blunt with his feedback:

“I don’t feel like you have command of the syntax… You have to have a better command of it.”

If you haven’t watched the video yet or don’t know these operas: the first two arias are in Italian.

The third is in English.

Granted, the text of The Rake’s Progress by W.H. Auden and Chester Kallman is full of complex language that’s very, very, very difficult to parse. But knowing what the text is saying is key to being able to sing it, to interpret the line and communicate its meaning to the audience. Aucoin demonstrates with the student that these lyrics might seem like word salad on the page, but when married to Stravinsky eclectic music and performed correctly, they make immediate sense. The music elevates the words, and the two together elevate the audience… if the singer is prepared.

I feel for this student. He clearly chose or was handed an unusually difficult song. At the same time, I can see why Aucoin’s feedback was so unequivocal. The first two singers could sing their parts and knew what they were saying… which allowed Aucoin to work with them more deeply to discover why they were saying what they were saying and to give those lyrics emotional depth and specificity… which could be expressed to the audience with clear vocal and acting choices. The third singer hadn’t done that work yet, so there was nowhere to go.

Embedding good vocal technique, then discovering the meaning of the text, and then bringing that meaning to life in a specific, personal, intentional way is an example of what I would call a methodology.

Methodologies in practice

A methodology is “a system of methods.” It’s a journey of inquiry, not a simple process or checklist. Methodologies are directive, not prescriptive.

Methodologies are everywhere in business today, across industries and sectors. Examples:

When I worked at Sapient in the late 1990s, I was in charge at one point of the company’s “One Team” development methodology. My blog series on connecting business, brand, and marketing strategy is another example of a methodology, and one I use to this day. I’ve been a methodology junkie for a long time.

I see organizations get into trouble all the time when they choose the wrong methodology for the current challenges they face, or instead jump immediately into process or (worse) tools.

When a company is violating a principle, as I described in my last article, an expert will usually react by bringing the conversation to an abrupt halt. When a company is working without a methodology, or using the wrong one, an expert will usually say something like: “we’re asking the wrong questions, in the wrong order, in the wrong way.”

When you find yourself facing a work situation that intellectually and interpersonally feels like strange Stravinsky music paired to an impenetrable W. H. Auden poem, imagine Matthew Aucoin (or Mark Gibson) saying: “But but but… If we went about this in a different way, things would make more sense. It could be different. Even beautiful.”
Next article: Process