You give complexity…a bad name

Complexity was the topic of the lead article in NYT’s Week In Review this Sunday.  The accompanying picture was a 4x4x4 Rubic’s Cube with a somewhat-hidden dollar sign made from the white tiles and a not-so-hidden message of how things are connected.  It’s an apt picture-analogy (IMHO, it’s not perfect… more on that in the comments).  If you’ve ever tried to solve a Rubic’s Cube (or other similar puzzles), you know the frustration of trying to put the pieces in the right place.  Moving ONE piece into the right place is easy.  That, of course, messes up other things out of place, hence the curse of the connected world of complexity!

During the course of the article, David Segal mentions a range of today’s complex problems, from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, finance industry’s collapse, our health care system, and the recent oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.  “Complexity used to be so simple”, he writes several times.  What happened?  Are we doomed to go the way of the Roman Empire, undone by our self-made complexity?

I agree with him that “just about every profession has become complicated in recent decades”.  This alone is not a bad thing.  The reality is that we live in a more networked, interdependent, larger-scale, faster-moving world.  Keeping things artificially simplistic may work if you can keep your world simple, but most of us cannot will our world to be or stay simple.

Many of our business problems are mired in complexity.  Solving one aspect of the problem shifts a burden elsewhere (like the linked tiles on the Rubic’s Cube).  The complexities of regulations and contract terms are such that you need a room full of “subject matter experts” just to see what’s even possible.  Data is never as clean as you’d like.  People change minds.  Our own organizations sometimes work against us in solving problems we all want solved.

So what can we do as managers (in a business setting)? I have been fortunate enough to see some things work in business settings.  Although there is no single solution, there are some tools and best practices that, with some modification at your end, may be helpful in addressing the complexities of your business.

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  • hcpark  On May 7, 2010 at 1:37 PM

    The following is not a “how to” but a list of some things I have found helpful in thinking about and managing complexity. This is not exhaustive, nor meant to be applicable in all situations. The points below can work by themselves, but often work best when combined. I picked up most of these in business settings, although I am certain that some of these may be applicable in other situations.

    1. Frame the “complex problem” correctly. Sometimes, framing or adding the right structure to the problem is the solution that unlocks the ability to address and solve that problem. For example, the “supply chain” problem may really be a “operating model” problem, with implications on governance, vendor management, and organizational implications instead of simply ordering and moving things around. So when the conversation gets “stuck”, one thing that may help is to re-frame the problem. One warning: this is best done when the facilitator has had a chance to come up with several reframing perspectives BEFORE the discussion–trying to say, “let’s try to reframe.. let’s come up with ideas”, is not a bad idea, but it’s less effective than having something prepared.

    2. Recognize the type of complexities you are dealing with. Something I picked up from Peter Senge’s The Fifth Discipline is that there is a difference between “detail complexity” and “dynamic complexity”. Each may require a different set of skills and effort to address. In some ways, detail complexity is easier to deal with if you have the right people with the right understanding of how much detail is needed to address a business problem. Many of the traditional tools we have in “solving readlly hard problems” can deal with detail complexity. Dynamic complexities are much harder to address. In fact, it doesn’t take too many moving parts for something to defy a smart person’s ability to “predict” what might happen in a dynamically complex situation.

    3. List the complexities. Sometimes it’s good to just list out what makes the problem so complex. You might want to use better wording than, “list of complexity elements”. For example, at one client contemplating the factors that goes into a site decision listed out the following “factors to consider”:
    > taxes
    > ability and market rates of labor
    > weather
    > interest rates
    > economic funds available from the state/county
    > etc.

    Then you can group or organize the list into different spectrums of risk, certainty, detail vs dynamic complexity (see #2 above), etc.

    4. Discuss/resolve pieces of complexities at a time. Here’s the warning: typical complex systems have lots of inter-related parts. So solving one thing WILL unsolve or at least change something else. However, doing something is often better than doing nothing… so treat the first set of actions as a “learning” or a way to test something. Do not make changes that appear baseless or blind to other parts of the system.

    5. Recognize and communicate that complexities are not “solved”. Here is where the Rubic’s Cube analogy breaks down. You can solve the Rubic’s Cube unambiguosly (i.e., there is a unarguable solution that can be reached). Not so the case in most complex systems. The complex system reacts, people learn (or unlearn), fatigue sets in, the efficacy may wane, or the bucket tips over with enough water. Whatever the analogy, you have to recognize that complexities are managed, not solved.

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