The Complexity of Complexity

Keep It Simple, Stupid (KISS) is among the first admonitions given to young managers. Rafts of management tools – from spreadsheets to process flow diagrams to slideware to organizational charts – help codify this commitment to a worldview that is linear, orderly, and rooted in simplicity: Cause and effect are clear. Relationships are precisely delineated. Plans march step-by-step toward a pre-determined end.

Leaders, however, must acknowledge that while simplicity has its place, the world is non-linear, disorderly, and in many ways unpredictable. Leaders need to embrace and understand complexity.

In a literature survey (Meta System Leadership CC) that I conducted this past spring I found that complexity was a topic not covered in depth in most traditional leadership scholarship (I will cover the other “missing” topics in future columns). A relatively small group of thinkers including Meg Wheatley, Peter Senge, and Donella Meadows have rooted their work in a systems-based world view that brings complexity to the fore and offers important leadership insights.

One approach to complexity that I have found particularly useful was developed in the 1950s by Dr. Warren Weaver to help explain the evolution of scientific thought. In Weaver’s framework, Simplicity refers to challenges with 1 – 4 variables. Disorganized complexity refers to challenges with many, many independent variables such that sophisticated statistical analysis is necessary to understand it. As organizations and cities become more sophisticated with analytics, they become more comfortable with disorganized complexity. In between the two, and often overlooked, is organized complexity. These situations have more variables than found in simplicity yet fewer than disorganized complexity and, more important, there are interdependencies between the variables. Jane Jacobs, in her classic Death and Life of Great American Cities, felt that neighborhoods were examples of organized complexity.

Senge, in his book The Fifth Discipline, made a similar distinction between detail complexity (arising from a large number of variables) and dynamic complexity (arising from the relationships between the components where cause and effect may not be clear and may vary over time).

Much direct mail fundraising activity is an exercise in disorganized complexity. Offers are sent to thousand or perhaps millions of people. Each responds or not independent of any of the others who have received the offer. The complexity is mastered through averages (response rate, gift size, etc.) derived through statistical analysis. Success is achieved when those autonomous responses conform to or exceed the predicted average response.

Large organizations, by contrast, represent organized complexity. Key to success is understanding the interdependencies and relationships between the components.  Marketing may generate thousands of gifts but if Member Services does not follow up with a “thank you,” if Purchasing does not procure the promised premium, if Fulfillment does not send the premium, and if Accounting does process the donations success will not be achieved.

It is not uncommon for people in organizations – or their external constituencies – to complain that “the left hand doesn’t know what the right hand is doing.” In my experience, things are often arrayed so that they make sense on paper – a simplicity-based view – but are derailed by sour personal relationships, misaligned or conflicting incentives, or a failure to discern hard-to-see interdependencies. For example, Marketing may have had an opportunity to get into the mail early and failed to notify Purchasing that premiums would be needed sooner than planned. Or Purchasing, incented to save money, may have switched suppliers resulting in a delivery delay. At one level, this is management: getting people to do things right. At a higher level, however, it is about leading through complexity.

Leaders must continually work to ensure that each component of their extended enterprises – within and outside of their formal organizations – has clarity on three things: purpose, values, and the business model.  Purpose is understanding the job that the customer is hiring you to do – if they are donating to your environmental organization they want to know that their money has been received and is being put to work. If they opted to receive the premium product, they may also value the chance to promote their efforts on behalf the natural world. Values are the bedrock principles by which you operate – among which may be providing the highest level of service to members. The business model is how the organization remains financially viable – and understanding that saving a nickel on each tote bag may cost more than it saves if they arrive a month late.

The dynamic nature of complex systems means that clarity is always threatened. People come and go, assume new roles, and acquire new experiences. Market conditions shift. Competitors act. Leaders must always try to see the whole and help those they lead see it as well. Embrace complexity and give others clarity. Then people will begin to act as parts of the system and more accurately perceive their impact on the rest of the system.

Action Plan

–          Read more about leadership and complex systems. Donella Meadows’ article, “Leverage Points: Places to Intervene in a System” or the book A Simpler Way by Meg Wheatley and Myron Kellner-Rogers are great places to start.

–          Pursue clarity around Purpose and Values as well as the Business Model. Many meetings begin with a review of “the numbers.” Try starting one with a conversation about purpose or values to signal that these are high on your agenda and to find fuzziness around why and how you operate.

–          Exercise a framework for understanding complexity. Whether you adopt Weaver’s, Senge’s, or another approach, practice using complexity as a diagnostic for addressing situations you face. Keep notes on where relationships between elements rather than the elements themselves are the critical issue to resolve.

A version of this post appeared on BecomeaLeader.org.

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  • This was very helpful. I completely understand the distinct differences between organized complexity and disorganized complexity needed to write my paper. Thank you!

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