Dealing with Complexity

By Anton Rossouw.

Dealing with ever increasing levels of complexity and fast pased change has become one of the biggest issues for business today. Eddie Obeng talks at TED about how we need to think differently:

Large enterprises has identified change, complexity and the uncertainty that it brings as the most significant challenge as quoted from the 2010 IBM CEO Study:

“In our past three global CEO studies, CEOs consistently said that coping with change was their most pressing challenge. In 2010, our conversations identified a new primary challenge: complexity. CEOs told us they operate in a world that is substantially more volatile, uncertain and complex. Many shared the view that incremental changes are no longer sufficient in a world that is operating in fundamentally different ways.”

Executives now operate in a business environment characterised by spiralling complexity that at best confuse our strategies, mostly disrupt our decisions and at worst paralyse our business. Combine this with the general sense of uncertainty about the future and it becomes very difficult to develop coping strategies that we can depend on.

An exacerbating issue is the fact that traditional management training does not equip executives and managers to address complexity. The bulk of current education, training and coaching is focused on command and control strategies of organisation that constrains dynamics in order to maintain states of equilibrium.

The dynamics of chaos, complexity, flux and change does not feature strongly in their understanding, and when it is inevitably encountered it triggers a massive amount of dissonance that leads to confrontational controlling behaviours.

In spite of these impediments we are not powerless! We can do something about complexity. On the positive side complexity offers fantastic opportunities for us to exploit. However, we firstly need to change the way we think about complexity.

We need to understand how to harness complexity and respond to it in ways that will benefit us! The answer is in reaching towards a new understanding informed by complexity theory, and through that change the way that we deal with complexity. Not fighting it but embracing it.

Embracing complexity means that we must overcome the dissonance that it creates, and work actively with it and within it as opposed to rejecting it. When we become comfortable with complexity, we start understanding its fluid, flexible and ever changing interconnected nature, and can then start thinking differently about contexts, opportunities and alternatives. This develops more insightful options for strategic decision making. This changes the way that we think and act to become more cohesive, resilient, adaptive, innovative, and agile.

A good example of this type of change in competency has been captured in part by what is now commonly referred to as the “Agile Movement” (, which originated from within the IT programming fraternity in response to failures in the traditional way that software was developed.

The Agile movement has influenced the way we perceive, plan, analyse, think, make decisions, and act. It is not only a tool, but a mindset as well.

For organisations, the Agile movement is a great vehicle for operational improvement because it is as applicable for business development as it is for software development.

The receptiveness that Complexity studies creates combined with the tools and methods that the Agile movement brings, unlocks in us new potential for success not only for software development, but also business in general. This empowers us to become more confident in the face of uncertainty and act more decisively and informed.

Although Agile techniques can be taught without an understanding of Complexity Theory, it is much more effective if the journey to Agility is preceded by and integrated with a deep understanding of Complexity.

This new knowledge generates a refreshing new leadership style that empowers us with the confidence to work with complex problems, ambiguity and uncertainty, whilst enabling us to understand, embrace and exploit complexity in agile ways.

This improves our overall contextual clarity, receptiveness and creativity, and enables us to create the special conditions that foster high performance teams that stimulate emergent business opportunities, and then harness these opportunities in agile ways to advance the organisation.

This drives organisations to better decision-making that leads to new futures containing enhanced levels of sustainability and growth. These new futures will exceed those of competitors that remain entrenched in traditional management styles. We can now effectively deal with complexity to our personal benefit, our teams’ benefit, and our organisations benefit.