The Must-Have Skill for Communication Executives

What is the single greatest problem confronting communication executives?

In a survey of senior communication executives by the University of Southern California’s Center for Public Relations, 76 percent of respondents said their jobs will be considerably more complex in the coming years. Little wonder. Though it is not that unusual for separate parts of society to dramatically change at various points in time, these days it seems as if all major institutions — government, business, science, education, health care, law, and the media — coexist in a perpetual state of flux. Indeed, if civilization is in the throes of some “new normal,” it must surely be complex; and as Klaus Schwab, founder of the World Economic Forum warns, “the transformation will be unlike anything humankind has experienced before.”

This presents several formidable challenges for enterprises of all kinds. For starters, they must manage an intricate array of problems that defy conventional solutions. At the same time, they have to explain such confounding matters to diverse stakeholders, many of whom are skeptical of experts and indifferent to facts. And they must do so using systems and technologies that are, themselves, becoming ever more complex.

But if businesses and organizations are to effectively deal with such daunting challenges, they ought first comprehend them, and help stakeholders do the same. Not surprisingly then, it will largely fall to communication executives and their teams to make sense of a chaotic world. Yet they won’t find answers to complex questions by zeroing in on a single message, medium, audience, or objective. Rather, they will have to turn in the opposite direction and explore ways these various elements come together under constantly shifting circumstances.

Complexity Communication

To that end, complexity communication is an open-ended, adaptive approach to complex problem solving meant to successfully operate in the 21st century. It views strategy not as a set of fixed procedures and anticipated outcomes, but as an evolving process that emerges from the ongoing give-and-take between enterprises and stakeholders. Neither a discipline such as public relations, nor a tool like social media, it is, instead, a different way of thinking about communication that enhances such practices and applications in a time of change and uncertainty. Accordingly, complexity communication is designed to be the following.


An especially bewildering aspect of complexity is that many of the most pressing issues confronting enterprises are not only intricate in and of themselves, but are also deeply entangled with each other. One upshot is that when even the simplest entities converge, what ultimately emerges may be something altogether different than any of its original parts. In these instances, it is impractical to extrapolate the traits of a single element to define the characteristics of the whole. Minor and massive phenomena are also closely linked in complex systems. Like a Russian nesting doll, problems encompass smaller quandaries, while at the same time residing within much larger predicaments.

Only by observing problems in broad context, and detecting how different parts interact and influence each other, is it feasible to identify all possible causes and anticipate potential consequences. Communication professionals must not simply inspect the granularity of a situation, but also step back to envision what is liable to occur when the various fragments come together. By looking at an issue through a network lens — investigating information at multiple levels of depth and breadth — they can identify factors both directly related to the matter, as well as those peripherally joined.


In most enterprises, communication generally exists along a spectrum between open and closed. To some degree, every business or organization is closed, in that much of its information is cloistered inside silos or behind walls. People too, are often sequestered. Homophily is a general tendency of humans to associate with others like themselves. Consider, for example, that three of the top U.S. locations employing public relations specialists are all within blocks of each other in the nation’s capitol. Other highly concentrated sites include New York (for finance), the San Francisco Bay area (for technology), and Los Angeles (for entertainment). Though helpful in efficiently navigating extensive networks of connections, homophily, like groupthink, can confine perspectives and inhibit new or contrary ideas.

It is critical then that communicators recognize their comfort zones and regularly venture beyond them, both physically and intellectually. Three decades ago, Arie de Geus, then Corporate Planning Director at Royal Dutch Shell, sought to answer the question: what distinguishes long-lived companies? Writing about his findings in his book The Living Company, he concluded that “they always seemed to excel at keeping their feelers out, tuned to whatever was going on around them.” In addition, they incorporated knowledge and resources from other disciplines to expand their own perceptions of the world. Such qualities are even more important now, and are integral to complexity communication.


Stakeholders are a diverse lot. As populations split into ever smaller segments, Americans, like their counterparts elsewhere, are simultaneously divided by age, gender, race and ethnicity, income, education, and geography. All of these segments intersect in myriad combinations and influence how and with whom people communicate. Engulfed in an ensuing deluge of information — much of it confusing, conflicting, or downright false — consumers seek to narrow their options, primarily to those world views that confirm their own. Such perspectives serve as lens through which to buttress their beliefs and biases. The more ideological and partisan their faith, the less likely opponents will be able to shake it. In fact, if directly challenged, they double down on their opinions, no matter how accurate or authoritative the other side may be.

Attending to peoples’ needs and concerns therefore requires appreciating the complexity behind them, and being able to articulate that to key decision-makers. It starts by junking outdated notions such as “representative agents” — factitious persons or groups who typify the behavior of broad swaths of society — and mitigating against binary classifications like red and blue states. Instead, it targets specific audiences and strives to see the world as they see it, by learning what they already believe, know, and understand about an issue or idea. Just as importantly, it recognizes how they perceive the enterprises reaching out to them.; and identifies who or what else are likely to sway their attitudes. Having these insights is a prerequisite for creating meaningful and practicable content.


As soon as a strategy is put into the environment, it in some way alters that environment, and is affected in return through feedback loops. This is because every decision or action produces new data that may either substantiate or undermine an original premise. What is more, today’s robust digital networks make it easier than ever to share information and ideas with just about anyone, anywhere. But as their dimensions grow, so do their complications. While the nodes of a network increase in linear fashion, the number of resulting interactions expands exponentially. Consequently, input and output are not proportional to each other. What first appears as small and inconsequential can quickly become big and burdensome. The public relations firm Weber Shandwick describes the process as “a string of critical nano-moments [that] gain momentum and mass at inferno-speed.” Once trouble starts, it can be difficult, if not impossible, to stop.

In complex systems some things can be controlled while others cannot. Complexity communication acknowledges that fact and enables businesses and organizations to adjust their objectives, strategies, and decisions as necessary. It does so by establishing a responsive framework that supports and expands existing practices. Examining interactions among enterprises, stakeholders, and their collective environment, it then determines how these countless relationships give rise to new and unexpected behaviors. And by setting aside assumptions and allowing for detours, complexity communication ensures that every strategy can effectively adapt.

A Better Way

The training and practical experience of many communication executives are deeply rooted in simpler, more discernible policies and practices. These managers are most comfortable making decisions based on a few variables and a direct line between cause and effect. So they approach problems as if they arise from a single source and proceed straight ahead. They also prefer that once a strategy is in place, it can be used repeatedly. Complexity, however, is not so accommodating. It frequently challenges beliefs, biases, and conventional wisdom, and serves up events that are both unpredictable and uncontrollable.

Complexity communication provides an alternative approach. It doesn’t jettison current methods and practices, but it does raise questions about how best to use them in times of often rapid and radical change. Thus, it looks at every problem with a fresh set of eyes. Each will vary depending on the situation. Not everything will be apparent; certainly not immediately. And almost all are bound to change along the way. But, at the very least, it is a means of thinking differently. After all, as Albert Einstein once said: “you can’t solve a problem with the same mind that created it.”

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