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Complexity Weekend Rethinks Online Global Collaboration: And Why Innovators Will Love Attending It

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As innovators, we deal with complex issues and scenarios on a daily basis. And unfortunately, not all problems can be solved with a simple Google Search. Many problems and systems are too complex for simple answers – they are dynamic, unpredictable, and consist of a lot of interconnected players and parts. Truly, the whole world is complex. And in order to tackle this complexity we need to reframe our ways of thinking into simple, actionable, and holistic systems.

I have been a part of a global community called Complexity Weekend (CW) for over a year, and I am repeatedly blown away by their ability to create a space for learning, unlearning, and rethinking in order to solve problems. I started my journey here volunteering as a facilitator in a jamboard session centered around the role of creativity and curiosity in solving complex problems.

I can still remember all the butterflies I felt from my first time meeting so many diverse global experts at the same time!

The conversations at Complexity Weekend always remind me there is a new way of doing things. Yes, rethink creativity! Since InnovatorsBox and Complexity Weekend work in the same intellectual ecosystem, we became a formal partner associate last year! It’s so exciting! As a partner, we help support the online events and provide training for other facilitators through our “Rethink Facilitation” course, and do so through live sessions. 

We do this because we love how Complexity Weekend is truly a community of innovators and  problem-solvers who dare to explore the reframing of what we learn, unlearn, and think. And here we hope to share more what this is about and why you may also enjoy participating in their upcoming events and this community! 

Yes, the next event is in November 2021 and you can sign up here!

What Is Complexity Weekend?

Complexity Weekend is more than just a weekend. It’s a global community of practice centered around applying Complexity to various problems within diverse and interdisciplinary teams in order to “maximize learning by doing.” The organization hosts two cohort-based Weekend experiences each year, and then in the other 10 months of the year have smaller informal community “Heartbeat” events. All events are fully participatory.

As a creativity and innovation expert, I am always blown away by the level of interactivity – the line between participant and speaker is intentionally blurred. The events also incorporate platforms like Jitsee, Gather, Keybase, and Google Documents to streamline communication and “single source of truth” – In other words, simplify where things are by having one place for all the answers. For example, we shared one Google Document to hold all the questions people may ask about the event. It’s one virtual place where everyone can go. This is a great way of organizing information where there is a lot going on.

Each event has facilitators that catalyze interactive sessions and provide guidance to participants while encouraging a culture of respect, inclusion, and peer mentorship.

I also love that the events are built to create long-lasting connections with incredible thought leaders that you would have likely never met otherwise. Far too often, people walk away from events with a list of important connections that they never speak with again. But many teams that form at a Complexity Weekend event go on to do great things together and stay connected through the practice of the regular events.

The events are centered around the concept of “Complexity Science,” an interdisciplinary and inclusive framework for studying, designing, and controlling complex systems such as a global pandemic, the great resignation, and more! It’s a fascinating and relatively new framework that is so exciting to be a part of.

Here, let’s ask the team more what it means and how they came together. Meet the three co-founders who started this: Daniel Friedman, Shaun Applegate-Swanson, and John Paul Gonzales. (And yes, you may recognize their names if you’ve been listening to Dear Workplace, Curious Monica, or my Creativity Talks as we’ve had them as a guest on our shows too. Check out some of our interviews with them on our shows as well!) I’ll be speaking to them throughout this blog to learn more about Complexity Weekend and also what it means to make online space collaborative.

Monica: Thanks for joining us. Let’s start with the big question: What is Complexity?

Daniel Friedman, Co-Founder of Complexity Weekend

There are many ways to learn about and apply Complexity. Broadly, Complexity Science is a framework for understanding and acting upon patterns across systems -- for example how might a traffic jam on the roadways be creatively solved by studying how congestion is dealt with in ant colonies, circulatory systems, and rivers? Complexity provides a wide range of models and terms that help teams develop insight about Complex systems.

Monica: What is your expertise in?

Daniel Friedman, Co-Founder of Complexity Weekend

While I am still relatively a beginner in Complexity, the main things I work on are insect behavioral genetics, organizational research, and ink drawing.

And if you’re thinking that you need to be a complexity scientist or tech-y person to be a part of these events, then think again. These events are truly for all industries and people from all backgrounds. This is why people in such a variety of roles constantly come back to these events, such as marketers, biologists, authors, small business owners, technologists, lawyers, and more!

“This is a community for people who are curious and open to ideas, collaboration, connection and learning. It is not a community for people who think they have nothing to learn and are not open to ideas and exploration,”

Shirley Haruka Bekins, Independent Writer, Researcher and Consultant as well as Organizer and Facilitator at CW

The Complexity Weekend team works under the philosophy that there is no expert in complexity, and that the more diverse the community, the better.

“I think our community attracts people who are lifelong learners. It is a great place to meet very interesting people. Joining a team during CW is a great way to learn about working on remote teams. So if that is a skill you are interested in building, but your current life/job/studies doesn't allow for that, come to CW!”

Alexandra Mikhailova, Neuroscience Graduate Student, UC Davis, and Facilitator at Complexity Weekend

Intentional in Design: Reimaging How We Collaborate Online

Over 200 participants and 30 facilitators from 50+ countries were involved with the May 2021 Complexity Weekend cohort. This is how most Complexity Weekend events are like – a room full of curious diverse individuals. I was honored to train facilitators as we explored collective problem brainstorming, team self-organization and growth, and more!

Complexity Weekend events make me even more curious about the importance of creating a space for belonging online, and am incredibly grateful that these spaces are becoming more prevalent. Virtual events are changing, and Complexity Weekend is ensuring they remain engaging long-term.

But this wasn’t an easy decision at first. Like many other events, Complexity Weekend used to be an in-person event and the team had to really think about how we rethink Complexity Weekend if we moved it online? How do you do ideation?

Monica: How has the pandemic changed the way you do this event?

Daniel Friedman, Co-Founder of Complexity Weekend

It was the pandemic-related changes at the beginning of 2020 that first motivated the move from a located Complexity Weekend (in San Francisco, CA, USA) to doing it online. Since then we’ve had several online Weekend cohorts and many smaller monthly Heartbeat events. In 2020, there were fewer norms or expectations around what online events and community might look like. Now in 2021, we see the development of a “remote culture” (for Complexity Weekend and more generally) as well as an increased fluency with certain tools we’ve been using as a community (such as Gather for spatial videochat, and Keybase for asynchronous individual/team/community chat). Also it has been awesome to have so many Participants step up into being event-specific Organizers or Facilitators!

 

It probably helps to know how intentional the team was when first designing the experience even when they first got together a few years ago and thought of this idea!

Monica: How did the group first come together?

Shaun Applegate Swanson, Co-Founder of Complexity Weekend

I recall meeting Daniel when he was putting on awesome Complexity events in person on Stanford’s campus 2018/2019 as part of the Stanford Complexity Group (a graduate student organization). I was around Stanford’s campus at the time trying to interview PhD students to figure out a better way to provide research mentorship and to connect early researchers with opportunities in industry.

 

From there we worked with a first set of Organizers and Facilitators (Jared Thompson, Jason Larkin, Michael Zargham, Chenling Xu) for an in-person event called “ComplexityCon” in May 2019 in Downtown San Francisco. The recorded Facilitator talks may be up on the CW YouTube, actually! At this first event, I met JP (who flew out from Santa Fe to participate in the event). JP had a lot of great insights and collective wisdom to share on the emergent and decades-old,  though still-maturing Complexity Science field, and the current community development dynamics within that space. Lots of Organizers, Facilitators, and Participants came together at that point to decide our future direction, and we ultimately decided on an annual calendar of community events we’d set for the community to grow in the foreseeable future. Over time, we aim to have a self-governed global community of practice that can sustain Applied Complexity learning opportunities such as Complexity Weekend for decades (at least).

 

Then, of course, at the beginning of 2020  the COVID-19 pandemic injected uncertainty into planning of the May 2020 Weekend and disrupted our previous conception of Complexity Weekend starting with a local hub based in the San Francisco Bay Area. Rather than delaying the next biannual cohort, however, we realized Applied Complexity knowledge and experience was needed in the world more now than ever, and we decided to continue with our annual schedule of events, moving everything entirely online. This ended up making our Participant and Facilitator base become very dispersed geographically, very quickly. It was awesome to witness. In the past few years since this pivot, we’ve been hosting entirely-online biannual Weekend cohorts and monthly community Heartbeat events, and the set of global Organizers/Facilitators/Participants has been growing rapidly. It’s all been very exciting, and I can’t wait to see what’s in store for the future of this community, as each cohort is very amazing, diverse, and different, and the CW organizing process is becoming more refined as we learn more each biannual cycle.

Monica: What was your biggest learning doing Complexity Weekend programs?

Daniel Friedman, Co-Founder of Complexity Weekend

This is a hard question, since I feel like I learn something at each event. One big learning or mindset change for me has been getting a new understanding on the role of the Complexity beginner (or as we like to call them the “Complexity Curious”). We’ve seen across sessions and teams that people who are just starting to learn about Complexity often bring some of the most relevant questions and fascinating previous experiences from other domains. So this entrenched for me the importance of having a community with Participants having all levels of familiarity with Complexity. 

 

Also it has been a fun learning experience to use the UTC time zone as the reference point for scheduling global events (something that is quite challenging actually). It’s not just a time zone, it’s also a date zone and mindset!

Monica: Not all things are always easy. What were some difficult moments working together online and how have you found a way to make it work?

Shaun Applegate Swanson, Co-Founder of Complexity Weekend

At the moment, Complexity Weekend is an entirely volunteer-run operation, which is challenging because all of our remote teams and committees of Organizers and Facilitators are composed of people who have day jobs and have other work they must prioritize above Complexity Weekend at times. This can be challenging and can be exacerbated with our teams being fully online and remote, but we’ve also found that there is a simplicity to the motivations behind active participation within entirely volunteer-led organizations. The remote team tooling is now better than ever and is hardly an issue now. We find we’re focusing less on individual roles, organization structure, and pay levels and more on core values, guidelines, and deep-time “paying it forward” structures and processes. All of us are finding the time and resources we can contribute to this great cause and community and when we are participating in this way we are engaged fully through remote team tools and practices that make our work effective, cooperative, and inclusive.


The intentionality is felt even among co-organizers and facilitators when working online. Shirley Bekins, a Writer/Researcher at SH Bekins Consulting was the Co-Organizer of Complexity Weekend from January to June 2021 and shares how her journey really helped remind how important co-designing safe rooms is.

Monica: What has been your highlight as a Co-Organizer?

Shirley Haruka Bekins, Independent Writer And Researcher

Simply put, I experience many moments of “flow” in the Complexity Weekend community.

What does this mean? I’m talking with others and suddenly feel a sense of wonder and delight. I feel a moment of being outside myself, and think, wow…this is amazing to be here right now. I want to share knowledge and to learn. I feel delighted. I feel like I’m firing on all cylinders.

 

I get engrossed in diverse, interdisciplinary conversations. These are conversations I’ve never had in over 20 years of work in housing development, which I find is highly siloed. I recall talking to a network scientist about parallels and potential applicability to real-life challenges: people living on the street, people in poor health and poverty. We had this wonderful conversation. And then a few months later, he asks about helping a friend who works in a homeless organization. There’s this lack of data to support advocacy. So I share about where to find it…another circle of connection.

Monica: How is this different from other events?

Shirley Haruka Bekins, Independent Writer And Researcher

A big difference is that we’re an interdisciplinary community. I participate in many communities and it is rare to have such a diverse group of people talking together. Everyone talks about innovation but if we’re just talking to people who are like us, or within our industries/domains, how can we innovate?

Shirley’s experience isn’t atypical. When I asked Bleu Knight, Content Organizer at Active Inference Lab and a facilitar at Complexity Weekend what makes CW different from other events and she beamed,

“I love to follow the backchannel chatter that occurs in CW, and then finally have the opportunity to meet the participants I've been chatting with ‘in person.’ It is a great opportunity to learn a lot of new things, and I love the surprise that occurs during the reveal of the real person as compared to my virtual projection of them.

CW leverages the online space to bring diverse groups of participants together. It is a wonderful way to cross-pollinate across different scientific disciplines. Moreover, CW is steadily building a solid online community. It's like going to the gym, except for the brain. You see some of the same people consistently, expect them to be there, and rely on them for inspiration and socialization.”

Bleu Knight, Content Organizer at Active Inference Lab and a facilitator at Complexity Weekend

Monica: Who is this for and why should they consider joining?

Bleu Knight

“CW is for people who want to solve wicked problems, and they should consider joining for inspiration and fabulous discourse, and to meet people that may be able to help them with their goals.”

Shirley and Alexandra agree too.

Shirley Bekins, Independent Writer And Researcher

“This is a community for people who are curious and open to ideas, collaboration, connection and learning. It is not a community for people who think they have nothing to learn and are not open to ideas and exploration.”

Alexandra Mikhailova

“I think our community attracts people who are lifelong learners and doers. It is a great place to meet very interesting people. Joining a team during CW is a great way to learn about working on remote teams. So if that is a skill you are interested in building, but your current life/job/studies doesn't allow for that, come to CW!

 

The organizers and facilitators are very intentional about making CW inclusive - across backgrounds, time zones and modes of participation. The CW events that happen twice a year are more like a sprint and focus on team formation, but the CW community is there to support the teams year round. I think the focus is on remote teams. Also, the structure of the roles is very welcoming and flexible - participants at one event can become facilitators and organizers of the next CW.”

How you design an experience matters. Daniel Friedman, Shaun Applegate-Swanson, and John Paul Gonzales (JP) of Complexity Weekend were very intentional about this which is why when I caught up with them after our first event in 2020, they shared how many decision and thinking they had to go through to rethink how to design an in-person event to work well online and with a global participant. It wasn’t easy but it was not impossible when you do it with care! After all, the community initiated an in-person event called “ComplexityCon” in May 2019 in Downtown San Francisco.

This is why we were excited to continue partnering with Complexity Weekend. This is a community that loves to grow, learn, unlearn and listen. They understand that designing a place for all to feel safe and courageous to ideate takes space and time and they are willing to invest in it. This is why they have always successfully attracted so many diverse people around the world to join not just for the weekend but for the full journey and that’s why you may want to join this November too as well as future events. 

Who knows, like many of us, you may start as a participant, come back again as a facilitator, and return again as a co-organizer. We kind of continue to grow together and we like learning from one another, just like you.

Online Community of Practice

Register for the November 12-14 Event and Cohort.
As the team is getting ready for another event this November 2021 and planning more for 2022 I asked what are final thoughts that they hope people would walk away from the experience and why:

Daniel Friedman, Postdoctoral Researcher & CW Organizer

 

“I hope people would walk away from Complexity Weekend events and cohorts with an improved sense of what Complexity is for them personally, an actionable understanding of how they might apply Complexity to their context, and some new connections to other community members who might be fun to stay in touch with as friends or collaborators. These kinds of awesome outcomes could have an impact in the lives of community participants and in their spheres as well. For me, the Complexity journey has included many seemingly-random learnings, encounters, reconnections, and collaborations. So I am always hoping that others will see how Complexity might be a framework and community that will support them in their own journeys.”

Shirley and Alexandra agree too.

Shaun Applegate Swanson, Principal Data Scientist at Microsoft & Co-Founder at Complexity Weekend

 

We like to see Complexity Weekend as an adventure you can keep returning to throughout your life. As we individually progress through our life journeys, and our perspectives and relationships to Complexity and other things evolve, we can each return to this long-standing community of practice to share our experiences and continue learning by doing together. Your perspective will always be welcome and is, in fact, essential to make progress on the most important problems out there today. We hope the relationships you form over the Weekend individually with new colleagues/mentors/mentees, or collectively with groups such as public committees/private teams, will continue well beyond the Weekend. Our global community of practice meets monthly in a public Gather space, and you are welcome to join anytime by subscribing to our email list at http://complexityweekend.com!”

Oh and others have a few more to share!

Alexandra Mikhailova

Shares how:

  • Highlights: “For me, the highlights are always the people. Every CW event is a different group of people, some returning, many brand new. It is a real gift to learn about how participants find their way to Complexity Science and CW.”
  • So she is looking forward to seeing you! “I am looking forward to meeting new participants in the November CW. I always learn something new about Complexity and team formation, and that's why I keep coming back!”

Shirley Haruka Bekins

Shares how:

  • “I look forward to growing my facilitation skills so I can be a better bridge between people and ideas. Despite my previous work and training, I don’t identify with any one domain. I’m trying to hold myself lightly rather than grow more “expert.” This is new learning for me.” and
  • How truly unique this space is: “I recall talking to a neuroscientist and network scientist about parallels and potential applicability of their domain knowledge to the real-life challenges I think about: people living on the street, in poor health and poverty. We had this wonderful conversation. And then a few months later, the neuroscientist asks me about helping a friend who works in a homeless organization. There’s this lack of data to support advocacy. So I share about where to find it…another circle of connection.

Bleu Knight

Shares how:

  • I am looking forward to reconnecting with teams and different projects, and maybe starting something new. Also, I am enjoying watching my own scientific path evolve through facilitation at CW, it's become a biannual point of self-reflection.

 

So what are you waiting for! Join us in November 2021 and again in 2022.

Thank you Complexity Weekend Team – Daniel, Shuan, and JP – for taking a moment to share how your journey of building Complexity Weekend. Thank you Shirley, Alexandra, and Bleu for taking a moment to reflect and share why you continue to come back to this community. We know this won’t be the last time we’ll be talking about Complexity Weekend either. Look forward to seeing you there!

Online Community of Practice

Register for the November 12-14 Event and Cohort.

Thank You Complexity Weekend for your continued inspiration and clarity into the complex. I now happily leave with more questions than answers and a renewed sense of gratitude for the intimate and inclusive online space you’ve been able to create! Can’t wait to continue to dive into complexity more!

If you’re interested in joining their November Cohort to join my journey in learning complexity science by doing, you can register here.

About the Author

Monica H. Kang

Monica H. Kang

Monica H. Kang, Founder, and CEO of InnovatorsBox® and Author of Rethink Creativity is transforming today’s workforce through the power of creativity. She helps companies rethink culture, leadership, and team development by making creativity practical and relatable regardless of industry or job title. She has worked with clients worldwide including Fortune 500 companies, higher education, government, and nonprofits. Monica’s work has been recognized by The White House, Ashoka Changemakers, National Minority Supplier Development Council (NMSDC), and Women’s Business Enterprise National Council (WBENC). Prior to InnovatorsBox®, Monica was a nuclear nonproliferation policy expert. She holds an M.A. from SAIS Johns Hopkins University in Strategic Studies and International Economics and a B.A. from Boston University.

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