Business Insights

Business Insights

Ways That Leaders Can Challenge Complexity

Traditional approaches to taming complexity tend to work by breaking complex wholes down into bits to make them easier to grasp, but of course when we do this what we lose is the ability to see the whole picture and sometimes that is the most important thing. So, systems approaches are about dealing with complexity that comes with seeing the "whole".

Today’s world is so inter-connected and communication so instant that whole-system thinking is already necessary if we are to solve today’s wicked problems!

Developing new ways of looking at old problems to create new choices can be one of the most fundamentally powerful techniques anyone can learn.

Companies and organisations increasingly find themselves in unchartered waters and it is vital that they become comfortable with this complexity, so that their daily operation is less about crisis management and more about efficient and effective leadership.

 Below are some of the areas that I have focused my attentions when challenging people to solve what seem like unsurmountable problems.  I’m sure you can add to these so feel free to let me have your thoughts and additions to this work in progress list!


  1. Look at the whole not the parts

A wonderful story that describes why this is important is the story of the six blind men and the elephant.

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Once upon a time a group of blind men came upon an elephant. Each walked up to the elephant at a different place. They were asked, “what is an elephant?” The first, feeling the elephant’s tusks, said “the elephant is like a spear.” The next who felt the elephant’s ear said, “No, you’re wrong an elephant is like a fan.” A third by the elephant’s side then replied, “I’m afraid you’re both wrong an elephant is clearly much more like a wall.” A fourth who holding the elephant’s tail then rebutted, “You’re all wrong an elephant is clearly like a rope.” The blind men then broke into a heated quarrel that eventually came to blows over the matter.

Were any of the blind men wrong? They were all right, yet because they only touched one part of the elephant and were mistakenly confident they saw the full picture, their understanding of the elephant was incomplete. 

Challenge everyone in the organisation to think outside of their silo and appreciate and understand things from every perspective. In order to get different results companies and their people actually must begin to think differently.  But be patient … especially when things get confusing and complicated.  If you are designing solutions, solving problems, resolving conflicts, managing constraints: at the core of each one is the process of determining the cause-and-effect relationships between dependent, interconnected parts of an ordered whole.


  1. Things are always time dependent

Consider how “things” influence “things” over time, and don’t think of cause and effect being directly related.    In complex systems, cause and effect are often distant in time and space!

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Lean or Six Sigma initiatives, or for that matter any improvement initiative, are always a place where this rule is very useful.  I have seen a number of improvement events that on the face of it have been successful. Only to find out some months later, that the “thing” that had been improved was at the expense of a something else.  The result was delays in the manufacturing process, frustrations (and in some instances anger), and the KPI’s not being achieved.  All of which made it even more difficult to drive a collaborative spirit – see point 5.


  1. Consider what emerges from these influencing “things”.

The statement "the whole is greater than the sum of its parts” is the classic systems statement. When thinking about systems and inter-connected “wholes” we should consider the emergent properties.  How things or stuff emerges is a fundamental construct of understanding complexity.  Emergence is generally referred to the appearance of higher-level properties, behaviours, or indeed entities that arise from the collective dynamics of a system’s components, where the higher level phenomena are, in some cases, more than the sum of the parts.  Make sure you consider the inter-connected bits, the connections that are maybe two or three degrees of separation from the bit your working on.  These are often the bits that get overlooked and come back to bite you months or years later.


  1. Drive Collaboration

Bring suppliers, customers, front-line, and top-tier people together to understand complexity, solve problems, create solutions, and map the path forward. You’re out of touch if everyone around the table has Engineer in their title.


  1. Develop shared language based around the concepts of dialogue and skilled discussion.

Diversity is dangerous when one word means different things to people on the same team. For example, I help organisations develop coaching cultures. A key requirement for success is that everyone has the same definition of “coaching” and “culture.”  Leaders can (and do) trot out language that in many instances, is designed not to be understood but to demonstrate how intelligent they are.  Make sure that what you say is understood by all and that people feel comfortable saying “can you just explain that”?


  1. Align everyone around a shared vision

A shared vision should be the vehicle for building a shared meaning and that it is centred around a continuous process where everyone articulates their vision, purpose and values and perhaps more importantly, how it fits into the larger world.  But remember that “it is not what the vision is, but what the vision does” that is crucial…….. but seems to be rarely understood in many organisations. 

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My favourite example of what it means to have a shared vision is embodied in the classic film Spartacus.  Remember the scene….”I’m Spartacus”?  Where it was clear that each and every one of the slaves had the same vision – freedom! 

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 For people to be at their best they need clarity (of vision) and the freedom to go and get it done.  With a shared vision you can achieve almost anythi

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