Four Stories: The Unpromise of Large Complex Systems

It has been a month of stories.

First story: I’ve spent more than 15 hours on the phone, in chat sessions, and on-hold. I’ve had three installation visits from Comcast to change my internet and phone service. Each person I’ve worked with has been courteous and kind within their silo. AND, it has been an absolute nightmare as I have bounced from department to department all over their system. Three weeks later, most problems have been addressed — but not all.

Second story. I’ve sent flowers in mid-August to a dear friend in Sundance, Utah. Several years ago the flower shop I’ve always used went out of business. I was going to be traveling, so I ordered a week early through The day the flowers were to be delivered, I received a call: we’re so sorry, we can’t deliver your flowers. “Why,” I ask. Well, we’ve just discovered that it would cost us too much to deliver the flowers. “But you made a promise to deliver.” Yes, well, we can’t, I’m terribly sorry. “You mean you won’t, not that you can’t.” Well, yes, and we are terribly sorry.

Third story: two friends from Kufunda Learning Village in Zimbabwe raise funds from friends around the world to go to a training in Portugal. They were very excited as they boarded the plane for the first leg of their flight. The entire flight was booked through KLM. They arrived in Cape Town and were bumped from the overbooked flight to Portugal. Minimum of two day delay, an increase in travel cost. KLM says, sorry, not our problem. Your travel documents are not in order. Unlike in stories one and two there was no courtesy. Perhaps because they were dealing with two young, obviously financially poor black people rather than a old middle class white guy?

I think these first three stories have a lot in common. All three companies are large mega-companies. They have no local place. They are dehumanized structures which respond to their programs and scripts and have likely each reached an unsustainable scale of complexity. Joseph Tainter, author of Collapse of Complex Societies, would have a lot to say.

This is not a world I want to live in. Can we create a different story?

Fourth story: front page of New York Times describes Amazon’s workplace culture. It’s savage and brutal. Not a place for the feint of heart. If you’re strong and know how to compete and stab others in the back you’ll prosper.

This one is a little different, while similar, to the first three. Like the others, Amazon has no local roots. It is “trans” only, no local. AND, it has an explicit purpose, successful in its own terms: make it possible for each of us to consume as much as we can as fast as we can. Is the internal culture surprising given that single purpose?

What’s the new story?



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