It’s true that organizations are confronting unprecedented and accelerating complexity. You may be surprised to hear, though, that today’s standout leaders are addressing their organization’s defining challenges—including the seemingly intractable ones—and achieving their biggest goals much faster and with a fraction of the effort than their peers. They’ve turned complexity into a powerful advantage and professional legacy. You can, too. Really.
All challenges are not created equal.
Looking at the moon through a telescope is simple. Taking people to outer space is merely complicated. Building a successful space tourism company is complex. Driving a car is simple. Fixing one is complicated. Disrupting the automotive industry is complex.
Anyone can do the simple.
Complicated challenges require specialized expertise to solve. But, once solved, they can be solved over and over again forever.
Complex ones are categorically different. They are new each time. They have many moving, interdependent and compounding parts. Complex problems are always the defining challenges – like changing your business model, digitizing, transforming.
Organizations have traditionally turned to experts and consulting firms to solve both their complicated and complex challenges.
For complicated challenges, like configuring a new finance or HR system, or creating a new sales compensation model, the expert-centric approach is indeed the way to go. These challenges have a predictable chain of causation that the experts have mastered. For any complicated challenge, bring in the experts to do some interviews and custom-fit the same solution they’ve delivered many times before.
Notice that they use a hub-and-spoke model: the experts, as the hub, collect everything relevant to the problem, and the client’s people, as the spokes, contribute their knowledge and perspectives.
By contrast, complex challenges — like how to double your growth rate, transform a culture, merge successfully, take out cost sustainably, deliver a world-beating customer experience — have no predictable cause and effect. There are no experts with pre-existing solutions to apply. We don’t know — we can’t know — what’s going to work and what’s not going to work because we are in new territory. And the human dimension of organizational silos, divergent objectives, culture, resistance, and politics exacerbate this complexity. A solution that worked for one organization won’t necessarily work for another, even when their challenges appear similar.
Complex challenges are high-variety challenges that require high-variety responses. The traditional expert-centric hub-and-spoke model — based on interviews and analysis – is incapable of matching the variety of the challenge. Nor does it foster buy-in and sustained execution.
Hub and spoke immerses the consultants, not the organization.
Hub and spoke temporarily immerses the expert team (the hub) in the organization’s context, when instead what’s really needed is shared learning and understanding across the organization.
It’s all on the experts.
Hub and spoke places the onus on the consulting team to create the solution. When the experts create the solution – instead of informing it – the result is a ‘clinical’ solution (often a great one) that will flounder when it comes time to execute.
Hub and spoke is slow.
Experts move interview-by-interview and document-by-document before being in a position to generate preliminary recommendations, and must then move step-by-step to reach (and justify) a set of recommended options.
With the Hub and spoke model, change management is deferred.
Interviews don’t ‘change’ or ‘move’ people. The model inherently leaves engagement and mobilization – absolute pre-requisites to the successful implementation of any solution – entirely out of the equation until late in the process. The cost of not having these forces at work from the outset is the persuasion campaign that must follow.
When it comes to your defining challenges, it’s not the problem you’re solving; it’s how you’re approaching problem solving.
You’re familiar with ‘form follows function’. You know ‘structure follows strategy’. So, too, problem-solving approach must follow problem type. Start by separating your problems by category. Solve the simple ones yourself. Bring in the experts on the complicated ones. Put the complex ones in a different pile and approach them the right way.
To successfully address big challenges, you must match the complexity with a diversity of talent comprised of both in-house people and external experts and stakeholders. Think through whose combined talent and influence is necessary to solve and execute the challenge. Think aggressively about who else you likely need to include for additional variety: futurists, market experts, customers, partners, envoys from parallel realities (e.g. other industries, other geographies), and so on. Depending on the challenge, 70 – 100% of those convened should be internal to the organization. They are the ones who will ultimately need to execute, so you want them playing central roles in co-creating solutions. The most common mistake is to either wholly outsource the thinking to experts and consultants or, on the other hand, to do the solving solely with internal talent when you had important gaps in expertise or perspective that could have been filled by including a few outsiders.
Special-purpose groups intentionally skewed to internal representation give you the best of both worlds – internal knowledge, experience, relationship, influence, and ability to execute, all informed, challenged, and supported by external expertise and perspective.
Bring everyone together to combine what they see, hear, and believe, align on what it all means, discuss options, and recommend the best ones. We’re not talking about a restructure or a temporary re-assignment; we mean convening them in one place temporarily — usually two to three days — to solve and align as one focused effort.
Force them to tell stories, express anger and frustration, describe what they see going on from every angle, and level-set on language, before releasing them to ideate and discuss solutions. That’s right – make it okay to struggle and to gripe. Deliberately build tension and frustration and make it okay to spin wheels. Just do it fast and make sure everyone is listening to each other and challenging each other. Once they’ve primed their own pipe with the data, information and knowledge that they’ve collectively expressed, the resulting shared understanding will produce explosions of progress.
If solving big challenges was about brainpower, the big challenges would all be solved, regularly and routinely. There is no shortage of brainpower – in fact, brainpower is abundantly available. But, in the context of complex challenges, brainpower is table stakes, and frustratingly insufficient. Collisions are the imperative – the ‘method of action’ for getting to results.
A “collision” is a deliberate, highly effective exchange between individuals, where they are intentionally and briefly brought together to interact on something important. At any given collision point, the two or more people involved are in direct contact with each other (not through an intermediary, as in the hub-and-spoke model), talking, listening, challenging, agreeing or disagreeing, and then moving on to other collisions. A high volume of effective collisions among all the right players fuels problem-solving and controlled explosions of progress in large groups when:
• They are carefully coordinated so that many happen in parallel, and put every single person in contact with every other person;
• They repeat, so that people can progress together iteratively from shared understanding, through ideas, and then finally to decisions;
• They impose behavioral rules and roles that elevate communication far above the norm; and
• There is strong, real-time capture and dissemination of the insights resulting from each collision.
To be crystal clear, if you don’t intend to get serious, precise, and scientific about how you put people on a collision course – then disregard everything that preceded this, and continue with what you’re used to (task forces, consultants, workshops, or whatever). Even when you adhere to everything we’ve laid out here, if you short-cut collisions, your efforts will be in vain: The loudest voices will dominate; Smart ideas will not be spoken by introverts; Only a subset of the people you’ve convened will engage (usually the usual suspects); and ultimately they won’t match the variety of the challenge. When you bake a cake, it’s not enough to put all the ingredients out on the counter. Collisions among the ingredients are what get you a cake, and likewise, collisions among people are what get you a solution and buy-in. They are what surfaces everything relevant. They are how the dots are connected. They are how wise and creative judgements are made. They are how coherence, clarity, novelty, alignment and buy-in are achieved.
The good news is that none of this is theory. This is happening every day around the globe on top challenges, and the know-how and tool set is mature and available. Organizations are growing faster than their peers this way, driving sustainable productivity gains, entering new markets and adjacencies, turning around, and transforming. So, set your expectations high, and know that contrary to the conventional thinking you’ve been conditioned to believe, there actually is a formula.
Subscribe for all our latest Forbes articles, whitepapers, and more.