Embracing Complexity in Organisations
Meeting Complexity with Complexity
Never has there been so much complexity in our world. Running institutions is proving increasingly difficult due to the complexity they are operating under. Complexity appears to have a life of its own, making it more difficult for organisations to organise themselves sustainably.
Or is it? Is our world really becoming more complex? Or isn’t it just that the methods we are using were never designed for complexity? Isn’t it that leadership in complexity requires a different set of tools, a different mindset, different ways of working? If so, wouldn’t it be better to change our methods and mindset, rather than blaming complexity?
In this article, I want to give an overview of a few of the key thinkers and researchers who have been exploring complexity and uncertainty in a business organisational setting.
The Consequences of VUCA
Complexity is one of four challenges expressed in the acronym VUCA — Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, Ambiguity. The term VUCA was first used in US military, but has largely been adopted in the business world to refer to challenges which traditional leadership models find difficult to address. There is an ever-growing awareness that the methods and mindsets that have worked well in the past do not work in our “complex and uncertain” environment.
Many who have studied different aspects of VUCA and ‘wicked problems’ have concluded that it requires different skills, structures, modus operandi, mindsets and organisational principles from those currently taught and practised. This is true in education, politics, business, communities as well as other societal institutions. It turns out our current leadership approaches are counter-productive, even harmful, to working with uncertainty and complexity. In trying to gain control of complexities, in trying to get a grip, our management methods are actually making things worse.
Are uncertainty and complexity new phenomena? This is unlikely, indeed they have always existed — think of parents raising children, intricately complex and unpredictable, yet generally managed quite well by most. Or think of farmers and how they have to work with changing and uncertain weather conditions…