What can the ebullient MI6 head of Station T, Darko Kerim in From Russia with Love, teach us about complexity? Well, he understands that the field in which both he and James Bond operate is highly complex, but that they have different roles within it…

“This is not a game to me. It is a business. For you it is different. You are a gambler. M also is a gambler. He obviously is, or he would not have given you a free hand. He also wants to know the answer to this riddle. So be it. But I like to play safe, to make certain, to leave as little as possible to chance. You think the odds look right, that they are in your favour?”

Bond, as the agent in the field is closer to the complexity than Darko, the head of station and M, their long-suffering boss. Because he is closer to the action, M has given Bond a free hand to find solutions. Bond is operating in one of the most complex environments we can think of during the Cold War. His superior understands risks must be taken and has put trust in Bond to make the correct judgement calls in the field in response to what he discovers. Bond is also a gambler and is trained to appraise the odds at any given moment and react to the situation at hand. In a complex system, because the future is not entirely predictable, all decisions made are, to a greater or lesser extent, gambles.

Darko goes on to warn Bond that the odds may not always be as they seem

“Darko Kerim turned and faced Bond. His voice became insistent. ‘Listen, my friend,’ he put a huge hand on Bond’s shoulder. ‘This is a billiard table. An easy, flat, green billiard table. And you have hit your white ball and it is travelling easily and quietly towards the red. The pocket is alongside. Fatally, inevitably, you are going to hit the red and the red is going into that pocket. It is the law of the billiard table, the law of the billiard room. But, outside the orbit of these things, a jet pilot has fainted and his plane is diving straight at that billiard room, or a gas main is about to explode, or lightning is about to strike. And the building collapses on top of you and on top of the billiard table. Then what has happened to that white ball that could not miss the red ball, and to the red ball that could not miss the pocket? The white ball could not miss according to the laws of the billiard table. But the laws of the billiard table are not the only laws.”

Darko’s metaphor explains complex environments by highlighting the difference between the laws of the billiard table and those unseen laws of the wider world. He is warning Bond that he is not always aware of what is going on even when it seems obvious, and that things can change very quickly in ways we cannot foresee.

In contrast to Bond, Darko is more cautious and prefers to be more appraised of the situation, he likes to think he can collect all of the intelligence available to have more control over the situation, to tip the odds in his favour. Whilst Darko is an important ally to Bond and helps him immensely, later in the novel (spoiler alert!) when confronted with an unexpected event, Darko ends up dead.

In professional sport M is the coach, empowering the players (in this example James Bond) to take risks and do the incredible to get a result (think Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s over head kick vs England in 2012) but club’s also have their Darko Kerim’s, analysts and scientists collecting information to empower the coach and players to make better decisions.

You may be very aware of the laws of your own particular billiard table, but have you considered the wider laws that are not immediately obvious? Are you empowering agents in the field to make the best decisions they can based on the available information? Are you driving your intelligence gathering function to keep pace?

Appreciating the laws of the wider world is essential for sustained success, how much are you able to see them in your current organisation? Or perhaps more importantly, how well connected are those who can see with those who can do?