Managing Complexity

Advice / Change and Organization

Managing Complexity
Nick Anderson , Business Consultant, United States

€śOur management structure and style gets in the way when dealing with complex and changing business environments.”.

How leaders react to this inevitability is curious. Many see their world as complex so their organization should be complex. But, the key is to focus on what to simplify. Central to this is your purpose and values; core processes and decentralization; early awareness systems; and leadership. Once these are clear and consistent, managers in different areas of the company can respond to complexity according to their own needs and realities. Here are some examples of complexity issues leaders face..

“Our management structure and style gets in the way when dealing with complex and changing business environments.”

This is often not so much one of structure but style. The key lies in effective delegation. Delegating task and responsibility, i.e. enabling others to do a job for you while ensuring that:

They know what you want
They have the authority to achieve it
They know how to do it.
By communicating clearly:

The nature of the task
The extent of their discretion
The sources of relevant information and knowledge.
Each task delegated should have enough complexity to stretch – but only a little by including:

Agreeing criteria and standards by which the outcome will be judged.
Agreeing first how often and when information is needed to monitor progress
Avoiding making decisions for the delegate when they are capable
Not making a decision unless provided with clear alternatives, their pros and cons, and the individual’s recommendation.
Not judging the outcome by what you would do, but rather by its fitness for purpose.
Delegating the task and its ownership so that it can be changed or upgraded, if needed.

So, you are managing complexity at the coal face rather trying to do everything back in the office on the surface.

How do you then get an organization’s purpose across to people?

Second point is Creating Momentum for change by leaders modeling what it means to be, say, the Customer’s Choice. Including:

Defining what value you want to give customers
Challenging the status quo
Probing and testing teams’ understanding of the change in hand
Aligning people’s expectations and actions with corporate goals and “The Vision”
Persevering when “the going gets tough”
Making decisive, courageous and consistent decisions
Motivating others to reach higher goals
Encouraging others to effectively manage risk
Communicating verbally up, down and across the organization – not just e-mail or presentations
Most importantly soliciting feedback on actions taken
What other ways should leaders be mindful of in getting decisions taken earlier and at lower levels in their companies?

After delegation and momentum it has to be teamwork where the weight of complexity can be shared. Specifically, building and growing teams that delivers customer and stakeholder value by:

Identifying key stakeholders to lead partnering activities, e.g. suppliers, subcontractors, branch offices
Sharing common strategies and building solutions with customers and other functions within the spirit of “we are in this together”
Focusing team effort on delivering value for both customers and other stakeholders
Making and delivering on commitments
Supporting and implementing team decisions
Resolving conflicting positions inside the team
Engaging others to improve solutions and decisions.
Developing external alliances to develop new and innovative solutions
It sounds like you are encouraging leaders to develop trust in their people to do the right thing, but to many that is going to seem risky especially if they have tried before and they have had to take back control

It’s an astute point. It’s down to leaders actively cultivating a climate to anticipate mistakes through praise for prompt action in dealing with the errors and avoiding risk. The last thing to do is to “reward the inactive and hang the innocents” – The Blame Game.

It’s crucial that Risk Managing and Planning are yoked together, back to an earlier program when I mentioned Clauswitz and Contingency Theory. This includes:

Scheduling, anticipating and alerting to avoid risk situations.
Reviewing plans from a risk perspective
Praising people for coming up with solutions
Ensuring every plan is reviewed from both the risks to subcontractors, suppliers (“respected friends”) as well as Customer’s perspective.
Developing options and contingencies with costed options at each project milestone
Engaging all appropriate stakeholders in a timely manner to get multiple perspectives on how the schedule is developed
Creating rapid feedback to alert when a task is delayed or accelerated

How would you sum up managing complexity?

Effective Delegation, Building Momentum, Developing Teams and linking Planning to Risk Management lie at the heart of navigating complex situations, but above all Leadership cannot be repetitive, but should be predictable. Permanent communication is therefore the leadership survival tool in complex organizations, but much more in terms of “storytelling”, interpreting context and meaning, and investing in relationships than in transferring dry facts or ultimatums.

Tip of the month

If you want to follow these three programs you will find an article “Eternal Triangle” in the resources section at where you will see a summary of what I have covered today.

Here’s my tip.

Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go.
T. S. Eliot

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Blog – – WTT – A blog for Agile Minds

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