Many articles and books have been published on how to master complexity, so I will not repeat that here. I will share with you the ONE major learning extracted from my recent years of working in the field of organization and complexity: You cannot master complexity with complex systems (theories) or with being complicated. The art of dealing in an elegant and lightfooted way is by using the principles of SIMPLICITY and REDUCTION.
Why? Imagine you are driving a car in heavy traffic; everything is in dynamic movement, you cannot oversee the situation, and cannot foresee what happens next. In this very complex and dynamic moment, you can get really stressed, because everything is moving quickly and you need to make instant decisions. What saves the situation from heading towards death and chaos are simple and universal rules, everyone can remember: for example, that the person coming from right (or left) is given precedence.
The same is valid for managing complexity in organizations – increasingly volatile and complex situations can be mastered gracefully by the use of simple tools, rules and thinking:
120 pages of strategy? Three to five main strategic directions (one sentence each) will be more than enough to give orientation. 35 KPIs? Broken down for each level? You are producing an unnecessary reporting beast, creating more and more complexity that you cannot use anyway. Think about three KPIs that are really meaningful. Travel regulations, bonus systems you need experts to understand and manage? Stop it. Invent two guidelines and one system. The idea to make it “fair” and “transparent” leads to a hell of a lot of work, frustration and inequality. People will be dissatisfied anyway. Complicated processes that pre-define all possible situations? Complicated decision procedures over six layers? Huge structures? Reconsider, YOU ARE TOO SLOW!! TOO COMPLICATED and NOT ELEGANT AT ALL!!
Less is more and more is less. We strongly recommend defining only what really needs to be defined and using the simplest words and approach you can imagine. Everything else will be written and forgotten or will lead to extremely slow processes.
This might sound easy, but reduction and simplicity can be very challenging, more so than complicatedness. Simplicity requires a clear mind, focus, prioritization and the development and learning of new practices. And last but not least, it requires the courage to enter new territories and deal with the irritation it might cause others, as in many cases, people feel confronted by an uncommon practice.
Even and especially when dealing with large organizations, reduction and simplicity are incredibly powerful principles, and we see the direct results and feedback from people who are oriented, empowered and aligned in a world that cannot be managed by prediction and control.