Sitting down for breakfast the venerable Mullah Nasreddin noticed a hawk perched on his window ledge. Never having seen one before the puzzled Mullah muttered ‘What a funny looking bird’. In a movement so swift it also caught age by surprise the wise old Mullah clasped the unsuspecting bird in his two strong hands, clipped it’s wings and talons and filed its pointed beak round. He placed the hawk back on the ledge and stepped back, admiringly. ‘There’ he exclaimed out loud ‘now you look like a real bird!’
Complexity has become a buzz word, increasingly common currency in many consultancies. As my own dive into the complexity rabbit hole had begun before I joined a KPMG in the process of switching from a brand strap line of ‘Audit, Tax, Advisory’ to ‘Cutting through Complexity’ I was curious to understand what the firm meant by this change. So I asked the head of marketing to give me his definition of complexity. “Well” came the reply, suffixed by a long comma,,,, "it’s when something is very, very complicated."
Consultancies are panels of experts with deeper knowledge and experience of complicated issues than the generalists running organisations or departments. The more complicated the issue they must solve the greater the time - and therefore fee - commanded. Coining complexity as something complicated taken to the nth degree communicates a higher order of expert intervention (and cost). But is this just an appropriation of the latest buzzword to sell old wine in a new wineskin?
Complicated issues (even ‘very, very complicated’ ones) have right answers; requiring numerous steps, time and expertise to get there. Think of a jet engine: if you or I were asked to take one apart, find a potential fault, fix it and put it back together again we’d find it impossible; unless we were mechanical engineers with the right manual, tools and time. Experts fix complicated things because they know how to get to a right answer, which exists.
Complexity is entirely different. If a 1,000 piece puzzle of baked beans is complicated then complex is the same puzzle with pieces being constantly taken away and new ones from different puzzles being added all the while when you’re not looking. Therefore, there will be no ‘right’ answer, no end of project. And no expert, no matter how experienced or expensive, can help you find what doesn’t exist.
Complexity contains the potential to transform leadership and organisations today. It is the ‘new simplicity’ - offering leaders radically different approaches to addressing some of their most tangled and frustrating challenges (why are staff more productive/engaged? what do those customers really want? why can’t we innovate?). But what leaders must be wary of are those who hijack words to sell the same old thing, oblivious to the inherent value in the new.
Be wary of those who turn hawks into pigeons.