Holding back the tide of complexity

Helga Nowotny made a ripper of a speech to the 5th Global Drucker Forum. Here's an excerpt of the edited transcript:

The sheer multiplication of networks ... has opened access to information [and] proof that more can be done in less time.... at times we also feel overwhelmed by a massive, unmanageable complexity ... But [doing] more things in less time – the division of labour – was [the] core of industrial revolution and has spurred management ever since ...

[We] arrive at “the embarrassment of complexity” – when it dawns on us that the categories we normally use to neatly separate issues or problems fall far short of corresponding to the real world, with all its non‐linear dynamical inter‐linkages.

Compounding this, managers have to act as if they could look at the whole, when what they see is only a part. As a result, managers have developed models and mechanisms to reduce complexity. The fewer variables there are, the more direct the cause‐effect relationships, the easier it becomes to make decisions. Thus, complexity reduction is a familiar way for any organisation to cope with complexity.

Helga goes on to describe how she sees an increasing reliance of numerical data in decision making. This resonates strongly for me because it's another description of falling back on KPIs as a way to measure performance. It also reflects the truth that most managers are more comfortable implementing a robust process instead of a resilient process. The problem is that the former approach hides complexity, while the latter embraces it.

Helen's challenge is simple, but powerful:

What if the mechanisms for reducing complexity through robustness no longer suffice?
Do we need a new ethos, adapted to and capable of coping with complexity?

Like Canute, who knew that the ocean's tide could not be held back through his efforts, perhaps the time has come to acknowledge that managers are no longer able to hold back the tide of organisational complexity. Something to consider as we head into 2014...

Did you know...

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