8 Complexity Management Strategies That Will Help You Cope

“What the hell is going on?”

Does this question intrude upon your thoughts every now and then? Relax, you’re not alone. In times of increasing complexity, confusion is the new normal and complexity management enters center stage. There are very few one-way streets in society and business these days. Even leading scientists, leaders and experts disagree about a lot. Except for the fact that rising complexity is here to stay as a new fact of our professional and societal life.

Managing a business today is fundamentally different than it was just 30 years ago. The most profound difference, we’ve come to believe, is the level of complexity people have to cope with” 

                       (Harvard Business Review, Sept 2011)

Complex organizations are far more difficult to manage. It’s harder to predict what will happen because complex systems interact in unexpected ways. It’s harder to make sense of things because the degree of complexity often exceeds our cognitive limits. And it’s harder to place bets, since the past behavior of a complex system may not predict its future behavior.

Complexity management is needed when you have many and diverse elements that are quite autonomous, yet interrelated in nonlinear patterns, and when emergence produces outcomes intended by nobody. Complexity may occur in business external environments, in the internal organization or both.

5 reasons why Complexity Management is your Business

There are at least five good reasons to enhance your complexity management abilities:

  1. You have no choice
  2. It will reduce stress and make you feel better
  3. Your value in the job market will rise
  4. You will be harder to replace
  5. You will gain more influence

Comprehensive research from the World Economic Forum concluded in the fall of 2016 that the ability to handle complexity is now the most sought-after quality in employees across industries and countries all over the world and is expected to become even more so by 2020.

The ability to comprehend, interpret and manage complexity has always been an important source of power according to theories and experience. It seems like that road to influence will broaden in the future.

The ability to comprehend, interpret and manage complexity has always been an important source of power according to theories and experience. It seems like that road to influence will broaden in the future. Moreover, it seems like a very good investment. The Global Simplicity Index has identified that the world’s largest companies lose an average of 10.2% of their profits due to poor handling of complexity.

Complexity Management is Big Business

It’s no wonder that complexity management is big business. We become anxious and stressed when complexity levels rise above our ability to handle it. Under the burdens of stress and anxiety, people are not motivated, productive, or creative. Many situations in work and business have risen above our cognitive abilities and our chances of predicting industries, societies and working conditions are slimmer than ever.

Take finance and politics, perhaps the most analyzed fields of society, surrounded by huge industries of analysts, experts, scientists, and media. But who saw the worldwide financial crisis of 2008 coming? Have you seen any agreement about exactly what happened and why? How about Donald Trump? Who saw his victory coming, and have you seen any commonly accepted conclusion about what, how and why?

In business, one industry after another is disrupted or otherwise seriously threatened by entrants coming out of the blue. Digitalizing, robots, and the internet are forever changing our ways of working and living. How about your own company and your own job? Very few would say that it’s becoming easier to comprehend the how’s and why’s of modern working life.

Complexity Management by the Human Mind

The human mind and our ways of perceiving and thinking are built for complexity reduction. Categorizing, selective perception and heuristics in decision making are examples of this and come so naturally that for the most part, we don’t even notice. We are unable to control what we do not understand or cannot predict. So we simplify to feel in control.

Most leadership tools are basically built for the purpose of being in control, to establish control or appear to be in control. That’s why higher levels of complexity create anxiety and stress among most people including leaders. We seem to need the illusion of control. So we make plans that don’t work, grand strategies that become obsolete long before they are realized and catchy visions which often seem like rituals, “me too” actions or window dressing.

Two main problems face people in complex situations: One is the difficulty in making sense of a situation. Another is the occurrence of unintended consequences, which makes the future hard or impossible to predict and difficult to plan for. These traits of modern organizations are far from new, even though they’ve become stronger.

Rituals or Realities?

For decades the organizational psychologist Karl Weick has claimed that we spend a lot of our energy at work trying to establish meaning. What’s going on around here? Where are we heading and why? What’s my role? What’s in it for me? Actually, according to Weick, leadership is mainly about facilitating, creating, and communicating meaning.

Leadership is more about the pattern of the seeds you plant in your daily actions and conversations.

For decades, the leadership thinker Ralph Stacey has pinpointed that unintended consequences define most organizational settings and that leaders’ insistence on planning and controlling are more rituals than realities. This is because the complexity and emergence of unexpected and unintended behavior and outcomes mess up neat and orderly plans again and again. According to Stacey, leadership is more about the pattern of the seeds you plant in your daily actions and conversations.

Perhaps we should listen to thinkers like Karl Weick and Ralph Stacey, now more than ever.

As always, people are very different. Some freeze like deer in the headlights in the face of ambiguity, uncertainty, complex roles, and unclear accountabilities; others are able to get their work done regardless or may even like complexity. You do not have to love complexity and most of us don’t, at least not for very long. But we really do not have much of a choice but to accept and cope with it. The good news is that complexity management is trainable like any other ability.

8 Ways to Manage Complexity

#1 – Accept it

Confusion, ambiguities, and contradictions should be expected instead of rejected. Especially, get rid of the “or” and embrace the “and”. Modern organizational life is few absolutes and many relatives. It’s not about hard or soft data, but both. It’s not about short or long-term, but both. It’s not about stick or carrot, but both. It’s not about productivity or creativity but both. And so on. Paradoxes can fuel energy and flexibility and are well suited for handling complexity.



Kim Buch-Madsen
Kim Buch-Madsen
Kim Buch-Madsen has comprehensive experience in the fields of innovation, management, and business strategy. Kim is a partner in a digital content start-up and accredited censor by the Danish Ministry of Education. He is the author and co-author of several books including the brand new “Marketing Models” and the upcoming "Modern Business Strategy". He holds a bachelor's degree in business analysis and a Master of Science degree in strategy, management, and marketing.

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  1. Instead groped to tame the complexity (without, however, succeed), we must take it into account and, around it, build suitable solutions. To do so is essential analyze the problem, to understand a complex system where the boundaries between things are blurred, the problem is widespread, multiform, unknown and changeable, being part of a system itself continually changing. You must create the conditions to analyze the problem in an interdisciplinary and multidimensional way, imagining a path towards it which offers opportunities for further analysis, develop the critical sense, creating a common language and aid the creation of a lateral thinking, as well as to increase our capabilities of interpretation of reality and assume solutions.