Skip main navigation

Trust and Complexity

Article on Trust and Complexity

In a previous article from this week we discussed what trust looks like between two people and what is going on in the brain when we are in trusting relationships. Then, in one of our videos this week we introduced the Collaboration Continuum. We saw how moving through the steps of (1) mutual awareness, (2) exchanging information, (3) sharing resources, (4) co-execution, and (5) co-creation requires ever greater levels of trust as we go from the early stages to the highest level of collaboration. The relationship between collaboration and trust is a symbiotic one. Yes, it takes increased trust to go from one stage to the next; but going from one stage to the next also increases trust!

There is another dynamic at work in that continuum that we did not discuss. It has to do with complexity. A relationship that is in the “mutual awareness stage” is a pretty simple one. We don’t know a lot about one another and there is not much at stake. We are not weighing too many variables. If the relationship continues through the stages that come next, however, things definitely get more complex.

If we get to co-creation, there are many variables and dynamics to consider. Decisions are harder to make. Consequences have higher stakes. Things are much more complex. When we have a high level of trust, it helps us deal with all that complexity.

In the 1980s Andrew Weigert, a sociologist from the University of Notre Dame, along with his colleague J. David Lewis, published a widely-referenced article about the role of trust in complex undertakings like strategy and planning.

Weigert and Lewis contend that trust plays a vitally important role in planning for the future. They make the case that it is actually impossible to develop plans that take into account all the possible ways the future could unfold.

Try this thought experiment: Try imagining all the possible things that could happen to you next week. Now imagine that each of those versions of the future had an equal chance of happening. This presents to us a future that is wrapped up in such enormous complexity that it is impossible to know which actions to take today that will with absolute certainty lead us to one of our possible futures. What is needed, then, is a way to help us deal with all this complexity.

For many years, we’ve looked to rational prediction as one such approach. This is what traditional strategic planning attempts to do. We think that if we can just collect and process enough information, we can make predictions that certain futures are highly probable and others are too remote to require any serious consideration. Of course, we can make certain predictions about next week. The route to work we took today will still be available to us next week, right?

Here’s another scenario. I walked into a college classroom to teach my first course in 1989. On that day there was a possible future ahead of me in which I would, decades later, develop a course on strategy that would be delivered to you and thousands of other people joining from all over the globe.

That is a future I could never have imagined in my wildest dreams. If I could not conceive of it I could not rationally plan for it. That’s why the authors come to the conclusion that rational planning alone is not sufficient. We simply do not have the time and resources to rationally predict and control the effects of oncoming futures.

So, what’s the alternative to help us manage all of these complexities?


Trust is an alternative to rational prediction in managing complexity. Trust succeeds where rational prediction alone fails. In fact, trust reduces complexity far more quickly, more economically, and more thoroughly than does prediction. Trust allows us proceed on a simple, iterative, and confident basis.

In the absence of trust monstrous complexity paralyzes us.

Our Lab at Purdue works with organizations and communities that are facing all sorts of complex challenges. Often, they have tried the rational prediction approach to manage their complexities. Usually that has not gotten them anywhere. We work with them to help them begin to follow a more agile approach, one that builds “trust networks.” We sometimes start with a small core team of just 6-8 people. We get them working together immediately, each making small bets as to whether or not the others in the group are trustworthy. They will place larger bets as they go, building ever higher levels of trust. As the future unfolds, these high-trust networks are able to manage risks and seize opportunities in ways they could never have anticipated.

© Purdue Agile Strategy Lab
This article is from the free online

Introduction to Strategic Doing: An Agile Approach to Strategy

Created by
FutureLearn - Learning For Life

Reach your personal and professional goals

Unlock access to hundreds of expert online courses and degrees from top universities and educators to gain accredited qualifications and professional CV-building certificates.

Join over 18 million learners to launch, switch or build upon your career, all at your own pace, across a wide range of topic areas.

Start Learning now