Complexity is the defining organizational condition of every enterprise, company, social system, and community operating today. While complexity appears different every time—manifesting as a growth challenge or a population health challenge or a strategic challenge or a competitive challenge or a customer challenge—it is never different. Viewed as a class of challenge, complexity is complexity.
A small insurance brokerage has its sights set on rapid growth. A U.S. state is grappling with disastrously low health outcomes. A financial services organization has opted to make big data central to its core strategy, but internal adoption is slow. A TV writers’ room needs to come up with new storylines and character arcs. An automotive company seeks to distinguish itself by radically re-thinking its customer experience. An energy conglomerate is trying to turn around a floundering post-merger integration.
These challenges have nothing to do with each other and everything to do with each other. As varied as they are, each one is a complex challenge. Each has many moving parts with many hard-to-see inter-dependencies; each has important human dimensions; each is presenting itself in its current form for the first time, without an instruction manual or checklist.
Dave Snowden’s Cynefin framework provides excellent definitions for simple, complicated and complex challenges: Simple and complicated challenges are reliably solved through a known sequence of steps (e.g., in a checklist). While you can solve simple ones on your own, complicated challenges typically require help from an expert.
Complexity, by contrast, is a whole different ballgame. Complex challenges defy pat solutions. They need to be solved anew each place and time.
Driving a car is simple. Fixing a car is complicated. Disrupting the automotive industry is complex. Getting married is simple. Planning a wedding is complicated. Enjoying a happy marriage is complex.
The really good news is that just as simple and complicated challenges are a category with a well-established and reliable approach to solving them, complex challenges are also a category and also have a well-established and reliable approach leaders can use to solve them.
The defining difference is the role your people have to play in solving one class of challenge versus the other. On complicated challenges, bring in the experts and have your people provide those experts with the information they need to configure their off-the-shelf, tried-and-true solution. For complex challenges, your people need to be the solvers, likely with the help of a few outsiders—advisors, consultants, partners, customers—who will complement them, not replace them. When the abundant talent inside and around your ecosystem pulls all the pieces together and cocreates a solution that they believe will work, they will prove it does by executing it. If they are shut out of the solving process, they will not understand, not believe, not change their behavior, and they may flat out resist the chosen solution, no matter how good it is. That’s why so many otherwise sound strategies fail when it comes to execution.
The organizational condition today is characterized by unrelenting, accelerating and intensifying complexity; the people impacted by complexity need to believe in a solution and change imperative before they will adopt it.
The key for today’s leaders is to recognize these realities and to act accordingly: To explicitly differentiate between the complicated and the complex, and to engage their people as the primary drivers in solving the latter.
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