Downgrading Complexity in the Exxon Valdez Crisis: Using Information as a Risk Mitigation Tool in Complex Adaptive Systems

Eric Snow



In a high-stakes crisis environment, trial and error can be too costly an approach. The Exxon Valdez oil spill provides an example of how complex adaptive systems can have simple, preventable problems and complex, unpredictable problems can come together with disastrous consequences. Not every possible contingency can be accounted for. However, research and experience can be applied to mitigate these types of risks by using information to reduce or "downgrade" the complexity of the contributing situations. The Cynefin contexts of complexity can be used to assess problems when they arise. Downgrading the level of complexity for a given problem can turn formerly complex or complicated situations into simple ones that require less knowledge and resources to resolve and can reduce the risk of failure. The possibility and consequences of failure may remain, but downgraded complexity can reduce the likelihood of this failure and make problems more manageable when they do occur.


Management without Borders, Exxon Valdez

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