From the Archives: Managing High Complexity

Thursday, October 23, 2014 - 09:22

In this post we revisit a classic article from the January/February edition of Management Today. Increasing business complexity and uncertainty requires an effective approach to solving important problems. By Geoffrey Coffey

In today’s organisations there is little doubt that high complexity and uncertainty abound. Increasingly, leaders are faced with a raft of complex problems that defy simple solution.

There are two broad approaches to dealing with high complexity. The first aims to reduce complexity to a manageable level. The second, when complexity cannot be reduced, is to deal with it directly.

Increasingly, the important and strategic problems facing organisations fit into the latter category. Here are five tips for working directly with high complexity and uncertainty to solve non-routine, important and complex problems.

Tip 1. Embrace the assumptions of complexity

Working effectively with high complexity requires embracing four assumptions. These are:

  • Partial knowledge is all that is available
  • All elements in the situation are interconnected
  • Individual perceptions, thoughts and emotions are just as relevant as actions and events
  • Outcomes are probable rather than certain.

Working in a complex world means surrendering the comfort of ‘complete knowledge’. While there may be a great deal we can find out about any complex situation, there will always be unknowns and some of these may be significant.

The highly interconnected nature of complex situations means each of the players is immersed in it. It responds to them, and they to it. This immersion makes individual perceptions, thoughts and feelings just as relevant as actions and events.

Unknown and unknowable elements makes predicting outcomes difficult. There is no certainty, only probability, of reactions and outcomes.

Tip 2. Take a whole system perspective

Any complex situation contains a vast number of events and related factors. It is easy to become overloaded with information and distracted by detail.

Stepping back and taking a broad perspective brings into focus the context of a situation as well as an overview of all influencing factors. It provides a way of examining information for its overall balance, relevance, omissions and inconsistencies.

Longer-term trends, overall priorities and opportunities for change also come into focus. A broad ‘whole-system’ perspective guides plans and, ultimately, moment-by-moment action.

Tip 3. Appreciate the dynamics at work

In high complexity situations actions and events are the manifestations of a deeper set of dynamics. These go beyond the problem itself to include context, and tend to be pervasive and difficult to change. They can also be remarkably subtle and intricate.

New and deeper insights can be obtained by constructing a rich description of the situation and its dynamics. They include the perceptions, thoughts, emotions and actions of those involved, details of what is happening in the situation, and external factors such as recent events and emerging trends.

Tip 4. Examine assumptions and perspectives

To work effectively with high complexity situations requires an element of ‘criticality’. The term ‘critical’ is used here in a technical sense: careful examination of things we usually take for granted, such as implicit assumptions and perceptions.

We all act from our personal knowledge base, which is formed by the accumulation of our life experience and reinforced by habit. Much of this knowledge is so deeply embedded it exists beyond our awareness. It is what we use to unthinkingly ride a bike, drive a car or make a quick decision.

When faced with high complexity problems it is useful to examine how well our implicit assumptions fit the situation, and to seek diverse perspectives.

Achieving a useful level of criticality requires critical reflection and learning. Major corporate failures often demonstrate the ultimate impact of an absence of sufficient criticality.

Tip 5. Pursue goals emergently on multiple fronts

One of the features of complex situations is that they are constantly evolving in unpredictable ways. The most effective way to achieve goals in these circumstances is through cyclic analysis and action. This iterative approach adapts to surprise events and the emergence of previously unknown factors.

Emergently pursuing goals begins by deciding an overall direction, recognising that, at any given point in time, all that is actionable is the next step. Analysis in each cycle consists of assembling all available information, including what happened in the previous action phase.

Conclusions inform the next cycle of action. Action in each cycle moves us closer to desired goals and reveals new and relevant information that is often difficult, if not impossible, to obtain any other way. Action is taken on multiple fronts as it is uncertain exactly which front will yield the best outcomes. Final goals may also differ from initial expectations.

High complexity and uncertainty are all around us and can be expected to accelerate into the future. Those able to put these tips into action will be able to solve complex problems quickly and effectively.