Why Ignoring complexity kills your org.

Five ways to deal with it more effectively.
Courtesy of Montillon.a Flickr CC

You can be doing everything right in your organisation and yet ‘success’ can often still be elusive, even for teams who you expect to be able to get there. Within the digital sphere, most of us understand the importance of agile principles, a positive culture, strong technical competency etc. So what’s missing? I’ve been struggling with this notion for a while and although there’s no straightforward answer, I’d argue that ignoring complexity plays a role.

I sat in a talk by Jose Casal-Gimenez about Business Agility and he introduced me to the concept of complex problems, differentiating them from ‘merely’ complicated ones.

Where he sees many businesses fall short is failing to acknowledge the difference and defaulting to solutions which are only fit for solving (merely) complicated problems.

His argument was that we’ve spent the last century successfully dealing with solving complicated problems, those which are repetitive, predictable, fixed and visible. But now we live in a new era, created by exponential growth in technology, transportation, global connectivity, inter-dependent systems etc, meaning many of the problems we attempt to resolve are “unique, unpredictable, evolving and invisible” — they are unpredictable, and indeterministic.

Irene Ng says, “We can determine complicated outcomes. We can only enable complex outcomes. We can specify complicated systems. We can only intervene in complex systems.”

James Hammersley writes in the same vein about how the new normal is being forced to tackle adaptive challenges, wicked problems and why in modern organisations we continue to fail at this time and again. He refers to Eddie Obeng, who takes the idea further still by arguing that recent generations have lived through a historical step-change towards a complex world, and that every few generations humanity will reinvent itself in a way that the previous generation would have found inconceivable.

In Eddie’s TED talk he argues that we have all recently undergone a profound transformation whereby the pace of change in the modern world has become faster than the speed of which we can learn. This is a fascinating notion, suggesting that whatever we learn now is already out of date. Take five minutes to clear your mind and just think about this.

Eddie’s ideas, developed in his 1997 book New Rules for the New World, are a great way of making the dilemma facing modern, digital businesses more perceptible. And both he and Jose are making the same point: we habitually try to tackle new world problems (complex ones) with old world solutions (designed for merely complicated ones).

Simple Rules

This brings me on to the book I’ve been reading: Simple Rules by Kathleen Eisenhardt and Donald Sull. They validate this core message that the world has changed and that complexity is a reality, one that we have to deal with. But their antidote is to strive for simplicity where possible and cite many examples of so-called ‘Simple Rules’.

In positing these they are not dismissing the need for complicated or sophisticated models in many situations (take say meteorology). Though time and again they demonstrate quite convincingly how simple rules can be more effective than complicated ones in tackling even the most complex issues. Take defining some rules for what projects to prioritise when your company has limited time and resources. They cite Alex Behring who, when he became CEO of a cash-strapped Brazilian railway made four simple rules for what projects to take on:

  • ones which remove bottlenecks to growing revenues;
  • ones which provide benefits immediately;
  • ones with minimal up-front expenditures and
  • ones that re-use existing resources.

The fact the rules were simple meant they,

“…aligned key decisions with corporate objectives. In addition, they translated the broad priorities “expand services to existing customers” and “cut costs” into clear guidelines that managers and employees understood and could act upon. The rules helped people avoid the paralysis that often strikes when they’re confronted with too many alternatives”. Read More.

This is just one example where simplification successfully trumped a complicated set of criteria and went on to improve the execution of a company’s strategy. Their book deals with cases found in investment policies, judicial decisions and recruitment, through to gambling, fire fighting and warfare. So in many scenarios we ought to be asking whether we’ve addressed a complex situation with overly complicated solutions. This strikes a chord for me within the digital business context — how many retrospectives have you sat in where you’ve learned that something simple would have had a better outcome?

We could be increasing process in situations which merely call for more autonomy and adaptability (perhaps seen in the lengths to which a change is hindered by a CAB meeting). We could be seeking to impose more oversight by using command and control leadership when embracing flatter reporting structures may work better (perhaps because we’ve always favoured traditional hierarchies to a matrix or holacratic way of working). We could be seeking to impose rigid deadlines on large projects without willing to give way on scope (perhaps by being nominally agile, but also allured by gantt charts, drop dead dates and “phase two’s” because we always need to “finish” what we started right?). The same is evident in all cases, a quest to impose certainty, control and order to a complex environment.

So what can we conclude? It seems to me that we are often guilty of ignoring the reality of “complexity” and the fact it can’t be tamed by creating complicated solutions in many cases. If within business we are struggling to address complexity (or even talk about it) then it could be an opportunity to think of some simpler solutions to try out. Here are five steps to deal with complexity more effectively.

1. Critical thinking over complacency. Foster a culture where your teams are asking WHY all the time. It’s everyone’s responsibility to call out examples where you are not dealing well with complexity but without the ability to question how will you know what to change?

2. Keep it simple stupid. Is your business trying to be too clever in the wrong places? What are the things you are good at, and where are you failing? Do you need to be over-complicating something on the periphery of your business if it stops you being good at running the core?

3. Inspect and adapt. Don’t slavishly follow a plan if it isn’t working for you. Embrace the reality that our problems are unique, unpredictable, evolving and invisible. This is why agile is all about being flexible enough to respond to change.

4. 80/20 rule. Identify and prioritise the initiatives and activities that will improve your success and discard the rest. In doing that you might rid yourself of unnecessary complexity that isn’t bringing you any value. Less is more.

5. Data and Outcomes. It’s much easier to foster discussions which might be critical of the status quo if you have some objective data to point to (and revenue figures for senior execs). It’s also better to frame your discussions around outcomes rather than outputs as you’re more likely to get consensus about the end goal, if not the way you get there.