‘Complexity Cheats’ – A Hot-wire Toolkit for Cracking Complex Challenges

Categories Case Studies and Stories from the Battlefield, Complexity, The Complexity Tool Kit

Hold your horses…

Now that we have excessively moaned about the challenges the rise of complexity in our organizational life is creating for hard-working executives, let's talk about how to deal with it!

The bad news is you will rarely find straight forward solutions to complex problems. As soon as an issue is messy, trying to solve it is usually not an option to rush into. It is in the nature of complexity that everything that concerns your problem feels tangled; defining the problem already represents a problem in itself. Any attempts to instigate change in one corner causes a ripple effect throughout the entire system which may improve certain elements but simultaneously disrupts others.

However, there is good news as well; that you deal with a complex issue doesn't mean you are left without means to turn things around, rather the opposite. A complex challenge often offers us more options to engage and improve than a simple logical problem does.

We just have to know how to tackle it - and for that we have to make sure we grasp the full, unpleasant mess we are dealing with.

That is easier said than done: When faced with complexity, can we honestly say we take the time to understand the challenge thoroughly? How often are we tempted to jump in with a solution - especially when the situation feels familiar - only to find out later that we misjudged the situation and possibly made it worse with an inappropriate response, a mistake we could have avoided if we had looked more deeply before jumping to conclusions.

Here’s a personal war story…

If Your Only Tool Is A Hammer...

The clearing centre of a retail bank received orders from senior management to improve its performance by improving processing time and reducing errors. The Director of Banking called in a firm of consultants who were specialists in business process engineering. No consultation was undertaken with either department managers, staff, HR or the union. The consultants drew new maps of the clearing process, suggested new workflows and roles. Roles were re-defined or cut, a third of the centre’s staff made redundant. Meanwhile the departmental managers hid in their offices, isolated from the process and the subsequent fallout. The redundancy costs were high, financially and emotionally. Those staff who kept their jobs felt overworked, bewildered and resentful. The consultancy fees were juicy, however, the changes implemented neither reduced cost nor improved performance of the clearing centre. No return on that particular investment, then.

Two years later the centre reversed direction and hired more staff to try to fix the problem - except that didn’t work either. The actual causes turned out to be far more complex than the state of the workflow systems, but that’s another story...

...everything looks like a nail!

This story shows how all too often organizations fail to address complex problems because those in charge either don't understand what the problem really is or are unwilling to look beyond the symptoms and admit to some fundamental issues. Lacking true understanding, they opt for the most obvious troublemaker or the response most familiar to them.

But if your only tool is a hammer, everything tends to look like a nail...

We want to equip you with a few more options than just hammering at any complex problem you encounter. Therefore, in the next few posts we shall introduce you to our personal toolkit (you may call it a selection of 'complexity cheats') which allows us to get stuck in there and - in the most constructive way -make our presence felt.

by Antonia Koop and Christine Baker

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