Managing Complexity takes more than Simple Steps

Managing Complexity takes more than Simple Steps

No proposals for managing workplace complexity can ignore two fundamentals. One arises from the nature of complexity, the other from the nature of humans.

1 Complexity can't be reduced to complicated. Complexity always entails unpredictability – variables that can't be predicted and which require flexible responses. If an organisation is simply complicated it can be centrally managed and systems can be planned and put in place. However, when we call an entity complex it's because there are so many variables that creative responses are often needed. Centralised management cannot cope with this amount of unpredictability.

2 People are the source of complexity and the solution to it. Humans are internally controlled, and they make individual choices. This is the strength of a business where complexity is the norm: autonomous decision-making by individuals can be the source of complexity but also provides the flexibility to manage it. Besides that, any practices that do not take account of personal autonomy will not get the productive best from people. Organisations that think that people can be 'made to do things' or can 'force people to cooperate' have already lost the battle.

Give Up Controlling Others

Because of these two fundamentals, managing complexity requires the creation of an entity that is decentralised in order to be adaptable, nimble and collaborative. These features enable an organisation to cope creatively with rapid change and the emergence of new options. It must rely on the capability and autonomy of individuals so that problems can be dealt with as they occur, where they occur.

The '6 simple steps' article (, while it makes some valid points, is underpinned by a centralised approach to leadership that is revealed in five of the six steps.

  • Know your employees in order to keep them happy and satisfied.
  • Reinforce the integrators who have the power to make others cooperate.
  • Reduce resources in order to force people to cooperate.
  • Require employees to face the 'consequence' of their actions.
  • Punish failure to cooperate.

These steps suggest assumptions about the ability of management to control individuals that will paralyse the organisation in the face of complexity. Only the 3rd step, 'combing cooperation with autonomy' is appropriate - though even then, the nature of 'cooperation' is revealed in point 6 – punish those who will not cooperate.

A complex organisation led and managed like that would be unlikely to succeed. The article does mention some important factors such as autonomy, people and taking responsibility. However, they are not integrated into the proposals. The 6 steps are still fundamentally autocratic and manager-centric (the very worst formula for managing complexity).

The Reality: To Manage Complexity Create a Culture of Autonomy.

Let's look at what it really does take for an organisation to be productive, though complex:

1 Be intentional about the development of trust. This is not 'getting to know your people so that you can detect the warning signs'. This is working with your staff so that trust is established though open and honest dialogue. This level of trust requires the manager to 'walk the talk' of genuine collaboration. Trusting your staff to act independently and behaving so that they can trust you to be supportive even when things get tough, requires a high level of self-management. Listening to the staff, acting on their advice, delegating important responsibilities, mutual responsibility for solving problems: all these build trust.

2 Using collaborative processes to establish and review the goals, intended outcomes and strategic approach of the business. It is collaboratively establishing the WHY that will engage your staff with the future of the business. Making the WHY clear will set clear direction for everyone and make the boundaries clear. Everyone in the business will know whatis productive and what is not. The collaborative involvement of staff in the WHY is essential. It can't be imposed.

3 Trusting everyone to know their job and do it once they are clear about the WHY (the rationale for the business) requires a culture of autonomy. It enables employees to use their personal expertise to work out the HOW. In a complex organisation the front-line workers make the decisions because they know how. When managers attempt to tell the technical staff how to do their job, autonomy is undermined.

4 Develop a no fault / no blame culture. Nobody will ever be 'punished' for making a mistake. When something goes wrong (and if the organisation is truly complex business, things will frequently go wrong), everyone focuses their effort on what went wrong and how do we fix it for next time. Notice how different this is from finding out who was wrong and punishing them. Blame discourages; collaborative investigation promotes learning. A complex organisation will fail if people feel they need to protect themselves against mistakes.

5 Establishing a learning culture. This goes well with the previous step. In an organisation where everyone is committed to learning to do things better, complexity will not deter anyone. The managers in this business will establish themselves as 'head learners', modelling an inquiring minds and willingness to problem solve collaboratively. Growing capability in every staff member from the top down will be seen as a priority. As one highly effective manager often told his team: 'the better we become, the better we perform.'

6 The process of reflective self-evaluation is deliberately taught and encouraged through regular process conversations between staff and managers. In these conversations the 'supervisors' demonstrate and model formative self-evaluation. The conversation is not a 'top-down' assessment but an exploration of 'how can we do better?' and 'what do we have to learn to improve?' People become increasingly valuable to the business when they set the standard for themselves.

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7 Management expectations are always focused on encouraging personal responsibility for outcomes, expecting and legitimising initiative, and nurturing entrepreneurial activity. Any hint that compliance and conformity are expected will limit the ability to deal with complexity.

8 Speaking 'truth to power' is expected and encouraged. In any organisation there is always good news and bad. It is withholding bad news from management, colleaguesor other sections of the business that erodes the business. Nobody can lead or perform well if they don't know the truth. Speaking truth to power must be actively encouraged and will be tested! The first time a manager is given 'bad news' by a staff member the organisation will hold its breath! If the 'truth' is well received and treated as a problem to solve then the culture of truth-telling will grow. Whenever a manager shoots the messenger, it will be endangered.

9 Remove distractions. Productivity is almost always undermined by bureaucratic process. Every task that is unrelated to production, and every process or policy that makes it harder for people to do their jobs should be rigorously culled. Middle managers traditionally create work for people to do to justify their own jobs. In a complex organisation, distractions are a deterrent to personal commitment

Managing Distractions

None of this can be reduced to a few simple steps. All these cultural features overlap and are mutually enhancing. Creating this kind of organisation will be rewarding and enhance productivity – but it will not uncomplicate your life and work.

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