As the attached picture points out, complexity offers a perspective shift.
Current management perspectives seek to shift organisations forward by seeking root causes to the problems they think are holding them back and fixing them. This is an optimal approach in a manufacturing environment. However, more economic activity is performed in services (my area of focus), where production and delivery occurs in the same (or nearly same) moment. This obscures root problems as they are often located at the level of people. So what can be done?
Once approach is for HR to be the psychology department; managing each person’s level of engagement, motivation, skill-alignment, and performance. But not only does this place a massive burden on HR (and I’ve met many exhausted ones over the last year!) it’s an impossible task. People have multiple identities they rapidly switch between. HR can never be certain which identity they’re dealing with and whether their interventions are sustainable.
Furthermore, how practical is a management strategy based on the idea that you can change people into what you want or need them to be? How many of you have had a personal relationship with someone who you wanted to change in some way? How did that work out?
The complexity perspective lets leaders move away from a purely ‘search and fix’ mentality and adopt an ‘explore and exploit’ approach as well. For in the deeply tangled web of the modern organisation problems and opportunities are part of the same complex day-to-day reality. So instead of trying to engineer your means of production (people), like manufacturers do to their machines, adopt the more human approach of a complexity mindset to work with people on discovering opportunities that impact throughout the organisation in sometimes surprising ways.
In other words, start working with how things really are, rather than how you’d like them to be.
But be warned: once you cross the complexity-Rubicon you don’t go back.
The hardest thing about being the boss is being on top of all things at all times.
The meeting starts with the CFO discussing the most critical issue of all - cashflow - but moves to the net present value of investment plans in the budget and finishes up with recent changes in the tax law with implications only now becoming more apparent.
The rest of the morning is taken up with the regular sales director meeting. You can’t help wondering whether the stretch targets set are de-motivating the sales team or giving them an easy pass this year (you don’t trust the assurances from your sales director because, well, he’s a sales guy and his bonus depends on hitting that target doesn’t it?) The head of key accounts joins the second half of the meeting to discuss a couple of lead accounts potentially being seduced by the competition and whether a discount will help deflect this or merely send out a signal undermining the perception of quality your marketing team has built it’s communication strategy around.
You seek out the Marketing Director before lunch, but only for a quick chat. She continues to frustrate you by holding one of the biggest cost ares of the budget whilst still remaining unsure about which half of it is being wasted. The net promoter scores don’t lie though - you’re told - and it’s all looking good across the key demographic segments (it all still leaves you with some unease - but you can’t fight the numbers, can you?).
Talking of numbers, after lunch you host HR, who is keen to discuss the findings of the recent employee engagements survey with you. A 2% increase in engagement seems to have made her very pleased but she is not (can not?) satisfactorily answer why the whole organisation is fractionally more engaged, or what it even means in real terms (and does it have any bottom line impact anyway, you wonder?). The other problem with meeting HR is that it takes you passed the IT director’s office and he drags you in to discuss the server reliability again (just do what IBM says you think, hoping he will hear you). You throw out a sentence about a piece of technology you read about in the Economist but don’t understand enough about the answer to know whether this would be a good thing for staff productivity or not (very little seems to be you’ve noticed).
At the end of the day the operations guy walks in - the one whose sphere of influence is as wide as your own it seems. Without him nothing gets done here. He’s dismissive of the promises made by the marketing team in it’s new ads, pushes back on the turnaround times sales are claiming are needed to fend off new, nimbler rivals, and complains about the lack of qualified staff again. You feel that, as good as he is at handling the business of today, he might just not be the guy that’s needed for the business of tomorrow. You’re the boss you see and, though you can’t yet put it into words, your intuition suggests change is coming and you’re looking for responsiveness. This guy doesn’t fill you with confidence (but you can’t afford to lose him today and don’t trust recruitment enough to seek a replacement without him finding out).
Once procurements have been and gone as well you sit back and try to reflect on the bewildering array of subjects, topics and proposals you’ve had to respond to today. How much of it demanded answers that you were sometimes sure of, sometimes guessing (is every other general manager winging it too, you wonder?). You need some time for reflection. Space to think strategically. Work out what it all means and where do you go from here.
Your MBA training perhaps kicks in: you grasp for a model or three to order your thoughts, but they contain huge white spaces of the ‘unknown’ where further, perhaps time-consuming and expensive analysis is needed. But the pace of things is moving too quickly and besides, that’s why you have senior staff: it’s their job to work through these complicated questions. It’s your job to integrate it all - hold it together long enough to pick the direction, make the right call and lead.
But it’s late and you have this all to do over again tomorrow. You find one final thought flickering in your brain before you try to switch off on the long journey home (because peak hour traffic seems to be extending ever later) - what use was doing an MBA that trained you to break down every challenge into it’s component parts, analysis, optimise and put back together again if this is what being the boss - no time for anything, but doing everything - is really like?
Shape the Future
Don't just adapt to it