To construct an office building is a complicated problem. To nurture corporate culture, on the other hand, is a complex challenge. Within the workplace, failure to distinguish between the complicated and the complex costs time and money, lowers engagement, and risks outcomes.
Building an office is complicated (and rarely complex) insofar as a skilled architect can describe in clear terms what the end result will be. The design may be broken into parts: foundations, external walls, ventilation systems, and so on. Elements interact in predictable ways and each can be dealt with systematically.
Whilst offices take many forms, known methods can be applied to see, for example, what materials and labour are required. The construction may be difficult, especially if the design is innovative, but with the right knowledge the process is readily brought to its agreed end. It is then easy to build a second office.
People and culture cannot be handled in the same way as buildings
Corporate culture poses a complex, rather than a complicated, challenge. Whilst we can describe what is desirable – say, inclusion or innovation – there is no readily defined outcome, and thus no steps that will guarantee success. Technical or management expertise does not illuminate an unambiguous way forward.
Within such a complex system, parts move and interact. Myriad uncontrollable variables lie between a fabulous idea and its realisation in practice. Knock-on effects are impossible to predict: move A to the left and B may well shift to the right, or upward. Interactions are not linear but emergent; dependencies are opaque.
Bricks and other artefacts of the material world do not become anxious or resistant when moved to a new position. Concrete does not harbour a desire for meaningful work.
We must stop trying to control complex systems
The natural environment is one such complex system. Society is a second; the economy, a third. The people within the walls of a business, charity, or government are a fourth. Managers cannot control complex systems, notably when human beings are involved.
Bricks and other artefacts of the material world do not become anxious or resistant when moved to a new position. Concrete does not harbour a desire for meaningful work. Foundations are not unseated by poor relationships or ill-health. No bias or whim forces gravity to act in unforeseen ways.
We are part of this social world: we cannot step back and ‘manage’ the complexity as if it were a complicated problem. Our organisations cannot be properly understood (or nurtured) without recognising thorny and shifting values and beliefs, feelings and attitudes, and fears and preferences.
The more we attempt to control, the more we tie ourselves in knots.
Traditional management styles do not work
Whilst this appears self-evident, typical management methods (as I outlined in my earlier article You can’t change culture, so stop trying) are informed by the principles of scientific management. Here, the overarching aim is ‘enforcing’, to exert control.
We set goals and milestones, publish Gantt charts and organise tasks as if we were solving a complicated problem. When the world is complex, spreadsheets and bar charts become a simplistic and misleading fantasy. They bind us to a false and limited view and delude us into thinking we have more control than we have.
Complicated problems are satisfying, not least as we make use of our hard-won skills and experience. Likewise, it is easier to solve a complicated problem than to nurture a complex social system. Our bias is to see the world as complicated, and so manageable.
Challenge the management rulebook
Ironically, the more we attempt to control, the more we tie ourselves in knots – and the less chance we have to secure the outcomes we desire. Complexity calls for a reality check.
Structure and direction have their place, of course: project management paraphernalia, taken with a pinch of salt, can be useful signposts. This aside, managers are advised to embrace their limited ability to control, or even see, the complexity they face.
A more open-minded, effortless (and arguably confident) approach is recommended. Here are five ideas that challenge the longstanding management rulebook.
1. There is no goal to ‘achieve’
One must talk about a desirable future, but within a complex system meaningful goals are hard to come by: a recruitment policy offers guidance, yet does not herald a culture of inclusion.
See goals and artefacts for the markers they are and instead direct energy toward the bigger, constantly evolving picture.
The job of management is to open doors and invite people.
2. Meaningful results are hard to measure
Frederick Winslow Taylor, the father of scientific management, measured performance with a stopwatch. Today, we are obsessed with spreadsheets, charts, and percentages.
As with goals, these help signpost evolution, but they are not evolution: be wary of measuring things or chasing numbers that mean little.
3. Formal authority is a burden
We love to exercise the authority that comes with seniority, roles and experience. The problem is that this renders managers ‘in charge of’ that which they cannot control, and simultaneously causes others to disengage.
Evolution is everyone’s job, for everyone is an interconnected part of the whole. The job of management is to open doors and invite people.
4. Relax management grip
Paradoxes and unknowns emerge, unceasingly, within a system of interconnected elements. Prediction is almost impossible.
Reject the anxious manager’s desire to control, for this too is a burden, and find comfort in ambiguity. A thoughtful nudge is more effective than a tight grip.
5. Think people first
The complex organisation has untold elements, and these all exist inside other complex environments. It can be hard to know where to begin. Start with people, for this is where the energy is found, and let goals, plans and tasks emerge from within.
Be mindful of complexity
Leadership that accounts for complex systems, rather than merely complicated problems, will allow organisations, and the individuals within them, to thrive.