Embracing complexity means working with inherent uncertainty rather than trying to engineer it out. The act of doing so can help leaders discover and exploit new opportunities.
The Magic Roundabout in England (pictured) is an example of how complexity was embraced to design one of the most effective traffic management systems in the country.
The roundabout has five outside roundabouts going clockwise (the right way in the UK), while the middle roundabout goes anti-clockwise. There are very few guide for navigating it beyond a few lines on the road: there are no traffic lights and no road-side signs. So why does it work?
A roundabout was originally sketched out to meet the demands of a very busy intersection: junctions leading to motorways, the centre of a nearby town, a hospital, football ground, and even a route to protect a grade 2 listed building. Yet, rather than settling on one configuration the designers embraced complexity to create a design that’s successfully been in use for over 40 years now.
When the roundabout was first opened to traffic its lines were not permanently marked out. Police officers were stationed at each mini-roundabout to observe how drivers navigated it. As patterns of driver activity emerged adjustments were made to support those that were beneficial (that kept traffic flowing) while negative pattens (creating bottlenecks) were dampened.
The result was a design that works with how people drive safely, rather than trying to impose safety through rules. The design - by the novelty factor and an absence of conventional markings - forces drivers to slow down and become more aware other surroundings: they give way to cars already on the roundabout, keep inside the lines on the road and avoid collisions.
The roundabout puts the emphasis on safe and effective decision-making on the drivers rather than distant designers. What this produces is ‘emergent behaviour’ - people responding to what’s really happening as opposed to having their action planned well in advance.
The result is that the roundabout sees very few accidents, (as cars go very slow) and no traffic jams, even in rush hour (as there are multiple ways to navigate it, which people learn as they become experienced driving through it) the entire system is more effective for everyone.
For those - like me - who live in cities with horrendous traffic problems, caused by the type of centrally-planned traffic management ‘solutions’ parodied in the picture of the art installation below - the attraction of embracing complexity for discovering new options, rather than trying to design it away for the sake of centrally-planned order, becomes obvious.
Students of business history know to take car companies seriously. The era of scale economies was ushered in by a car company - Ford - on its innovative assembly line. While economies of scope were unleashed by another - Toyota - with its equally innovative total production system. So, has Lotus - a British sports and racing car company - just signalled the rise of the the next great step in the evolution of business?
The high-end car market is fierce and Lotus’ new CEO can only afford to innovate frugally - improve without investing. He asks ‘for all three existing car models to be broken down into their parts and laid out on tables and asks all 900 company employees to tag the parts using a traffic-light system: keep, renegotiate supply/redesign, or discard. This ensured everyone understood why these changes were being proposed and resulted in weight savings of 10% and £3,000 from the components bill. It also led to the overall quality of the cars being improved’ (1) and this was all achieved without an expensive re-design of the cars themselves.
Why does this have the potential to signal a radical new breakthrough in business?
Speed and flexibility drive competitive advantage in rapidly changing and unpredictable markets. Resource intensive major projects with long lead times and even longer pay backs are increasingly harder to justify. But this doesn’t mean organisations need to go into defensive mode, just protecting what they have by cutting costs further. It simply means business leaders should adapt better and, helpfully, Lotus has shown the way in three simple steps:
1. Work with finely-grained objects - like the Lotus CEO, break things down to the lowest practical level of action. Rather than re-design the whole car he looked to question the right of each component to be there in its current state. However, if you’re in a service organisation DON’T confuse people for car parts (people are more complex than component parts!). Instead the unit of analysis should be narratives (the micro-stories) that spread like wildfire around your organisation, shaping how people act. Become aware of them and adopt pragmatic steps to get more of the ones you want and less of those you don’t want
2. Leverage distributed cognition - Getting everyone involved not only helps create buy in but more importantly taps into one of the most important maxims of the new business paradigm: answers are already known, but just very widely distributed. Your challenge is to bring those knowledge-rich perspectives online - seeing what’s really happening through the eyes of those who know this best: customers, employees, suppliers etc. Again, capturing the narratives people share and exploring them with tools such as SenseMaker® lets you do this quickly in real-time
3. Ensure disintermediation - finally, and most importantly for business leaders, you must get your hands dirty. As Rumelt states in his excellent book ‘Good Strategy/Bad Strategy’ “Leaders who stay ‘above the details’ may do well in stable times, but riding a wave of change requires an intimate feel for its origins and dynamics.” Don’t let middle-men - internal middle-managers or external ‘experts’ - get in the way of seeing things with your own eyes as this is the only way you can effectively match what is possible (to do) with what is (really) needed.
The next stage in the evolution of business is here and it’s frugal. The barriers to entry are no longer capital-based ones but knowledge-based. Are you on board?
#TheNewSimplicity #SmarterOrganisations #SenseMaker
(1) This story was covered in the UK Sunday Times February 2015 http://www.thesundaytimes.co.uk/sto/business/Industry/article1516483.ece though I came across this in the excellent 'Cynefin Mini-Book' p6 http://www.infoq.com/minibooks/cynefin-mini-book
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