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Taming complexity

You have a lot going on

You are complex. No doubt those behaviour-triggering hormones swilling about within us have a role to play. We have multiple moving parts (for example, we contain trillions of energy producing mitochondria), so it is fair to say we are complex systems. The organisations we work with / for are similarly so. As is the environment in which organisations operate. Complex systems have certain characteristics, including:

  • Many interacting components

  • Emergent behaviour – ie behaviour that could not easily have been predicted.

  • Non-linearity – A slight change in one part of the system could have a disproportionately substantial impact on other parts of the system.

Bow before me

Such nested complexity (people – organisations - society – planet – universe etc) makes predicting and thus navigating our environment exceedingly difficult. So it is no wonder that the industrial revolutionaries back in the day recognised that they needed to tame this complexity if their factory approach was going to work. They did an excellent job, in particular, they:

  • Attempted to stabilise the planet economically by protecting trade routes.

  • Created organisations that ran with the predictability of a cuckoo clock.

  • Established stable societies that allowed workers to afford and utilize the products manufactured by the factories.

  • Created a workplace where worker homogeneity ensured that people could be treated as fungible factory machine components.

Enter the drudgocene

Taming the weather and geology was a step too far. And even the mutual economic rewards of international trade did not always suppress the desire for war. On occasion it was cheaper to ‘acquire’ a nation than to trade with it for access to its natural resources. But at least as far as the ‘developed world’ was concerned efforts to maintain economic predictability were largely successful. This was great news if you were a factory owner. Less so if you had to spend a large part of your life as a dehumanised cog in a Taylorist nightmare.

All hail Efficiency

Unfortunately, our desire for profit, turned us into worshippers of efficiency. Global supply chains and information technology advancements have both maximised efficiency and inadvertently revved up complexity at a global scale. Everything seems to be attached to everything and so everything impacts everything. The flap of a butterfly’s wing can impact your post-work ready meal options. These are just two of the manufactured macroenvironmental forces at play. Add geology, pandemics and meteorology to the mix and the world becomes essentially unknowable. Now the factory owners are having nightmares.

It'll pass

Some factory owners are responding by cost managing their way through what they believe is merely a disruptive blip. Others are sprinkling their organisation with tech ‘pixie dust’ in the hope that so called digital transformation will somehow or other future-proof the organisation.

But this is not a blip and transformations generally require a ‘point B’ as the transformational goal. But unfortunately point B will not keep still. Leadership teams are now seeing the exceptional become the normal. Novel situations are a daily occurrence. You cannot throw existing processes at a novel situation. An innovative response is required.

Failure is not an option

Innovation requires experimentation and thus failure is a natural byproduct. But failure is anathema to efficiency, and this will be a problem for leaders schooled in ‘efficiency at all costs’. Consequently many of today’s leaders, both business and government, are ill-equipped for what lies ahead.

One option is to focus on the development of the next wave of leaders and patiently wait for the old school to fall from grace. Another is to append new school business models, along with new school leaders, to the old school organisation. This will reduce the existential threat to the organisation of having only one source of cash. This is not easy to do but it is easier than trying to transform the existing business and thus put that one source of cash at risk.

Business as unusual

The way forward is to create a business that is a portfolio of business models and by that I mean the organisation comprises a myriad of assorted products and services, financial models and go to market approaches. It is less about transformation and more about adaptiveness. It is not complicated, it’s simply complex.


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