Chaos with complexity – How to cope with organizational complexity

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Systems, structures and processes are becoming complex by the day. Generally speaking, human life has reached that level of complexity which makes you question the existence of all the innovation and automation around us.

For the decision makers, environments that were isolated years ago, are bumping into each other causing unexpected results. This causes more decision points getting added into structures and processes causing unintentional  addition to already complex environments.

I was recently watching a TED talk by Yves Morieux titled How too many rules at work keep you from getting things done. In his talk, Yves presents an example of a 4X100 relay race. The name 4X100 relay conveys that each member of the team is expected to run a distance of 100 meters. However; this does not mean that the team member drops the baton exactly at the 100 meters mark. Most athletes end up running on an average 110 meters and most athletes don’t know how much they have run as their focus is to hand over the baton to the next member of the team and achieving the goal of completing the race.

If we were to consider a relay race example in context of an organization, there are specific roles for specific tasks. Arguments over whose responsibility was it to get something done are very common. Again, staying with the relay race example, since a member of the team has only signed up to run 100 meters, organizations end up adding a role that is responsible for passing the baton from one team member to another. The result of this approach is increase in structural complexities and a culture of local optimization.

So how do organizations cope with the complexity or what behaviors would keep complexity in check. Here are some guidelines:

  • Purpose and values – Every role in the organization has a value and purpose. This is how most roles get created but the focus needs to be about the collective purpose of the team or organization. Similar to the relay race example where finishing the race and doing whatever it take to finish first is the ultimate goal. Individual goals do not ensure team success.
  • Decentralize authority – Once shared purpose and values have been established, next step is to decentralize the authority. A relay team might have a leader/captain, someone with experience and leadership attributes, but when it comes to taking a decision during the race, every athlete makes decision keeping the end goal of winning the race in mind. In the end, it is the team that wins and it is the team that loses.
  • Early awareness of unpredictable situations – When dealing with complexity, one needs to identify the variables that create predictable outcomes when they’re within a particular range, and unpredictable outcomes when they are not. In a relay race scenario, weather plays a crucial factor. Teams alter the sequence of the participating team members or make similar adjustments to ensure that the collective team keeps the focus on the end goal. The decisions made are generally subtle and not drastic to ensure last minute adaptation does not impact the overall probability of the team winning the race.
  • Leadership – Leading a complex organization requires an entirely different mindset. Hierarchy works if every level is doing something distinct and specific. However, due to the interdependence in complexity, this is impossible in today’s organizations. By simplifying and clarifying vision and values, core processes and decentralization, and early awareness systems, hierarchy can be complemented by “heterarchy”, the interdependent, networked organization in which every part reflects a different perspective of the whole and which is needed in today’s global business world. The boss no longer needs to “tell” the team members what exactly to do, but rather depend on their initiative, creativity and competence for success. So, next time your team faces a challenge, do not create additional complexity, but trust the team to make the right choice. Teams generally appreciate a nimble setup.
  • Simplify and cleanup – An easy starting point for simplification is to get rid of stupid rules and low-value activities, time-wasters that exist in abundance in most organizations. Look, for example, at how many people need to review and sign off on expense reports; or how many times slide decks need to be reviewed before they are presented. If you can shed a few simple tasks, you will create bandwidth to focus on more substantial simplification opportunities.

So, every time you fix a problem, look at the solution you are proposing and ask yourself a question, “Am I fixing a problem or creating more chaos with complexity?”.

 

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