Managing in companies of high complexity

Complexity is the main challenge for the management

“Over and over again the deeds and works of individual people, woven into the social net, take on an appearance that was not premeditated. Again and again therefore, people stand before the outcome of their actions like the apprentice magician before the spirits he has conjured up and which, once at large, are no longer in his power. They look with astonishment at the convolutions and the formations of the historical flow which they themselves constitute but do not control.” (Elias, 2001, p. 62)

In quoting Elias, I want to point to the unpredictability of our organisations. Over and over again, we argue and act as if we could predict the outcomes of our interwoven cooperation in companies.

At the same time, we all know that predictability is largely an illusion. In practice, we deal with ambiguity, unpredictability, surprises, rapid change, the unknown, and ultimately: human beings. In other words: complexity.

We were taught in management methodologies which explain why people act and react the way they do in the variety of situations because management theory insufficiently comprehends human beings. Management science mostly focuses on calculable matters, and being good at calculations is not what makes people act the way they act.

We tend to put aside the ubiquitous aspects of complexity, such as conscious and unconscious intentions, power differentials, personal values or emotions. I suggest a different approach, based on the insight provided by social psychology and complexity sciences. The key element is to accept that the full complexity is there anyway, no matter if we like it or not.

Imagine you no longer need to pretend that you are in control of all the messy conversations, gossip, and opinion-building processes. Imagine the employees in your company are allowed to surface uncertainty, frustrations, ambiguity, and contradictions. I agree it may become uncomfortable. But, wouldn’t it be better to openly talk about all that rather than neglecting it until the point where it hits you, most probably much harder? The good news is that it is exactly the uncomfortable situations from which the precious new ideas emerge.

Thus, I encourage you – the managers – to encourage yourself and all of your employees to surface what they think and explain why they think how they think. In many cases, the uncovering of the underlying assumptions and different viewpoints is very insightful and calls out new ideas: novelty, aka innovation.

We cannot increase our brain capacity by magnitudes, but we can significantly develop our understanding of complexity through reflectively thinking about what we’re doing and why. The integration of different viewpoints bring out common sense, meaning, purpose, and therefore drive – and, not seldom really good solutions. 

Think about the assumptions we take for granted widely. Does your (or my) company really have values or is it rather a highly abstract legal construction without any emotions, opinions, and values? Do you think that the majority of people working together will ever share the same motives? I don’t think so. But I’m convinced that the complex processes of interaction will bring out new views. Hence, there is nothing magic about responsiveness, change, or innovation. We all have these capabilities by nature. There is no need for change programs because change will happen anyways, everywhere and at all times. What we can do is encourage ourselves and others around us to reflect on what we assume, what we expect, and how we think. This sort of reflective practice will increase the quality of the outcome.

At this point, you may ask yourself how you ever will be able to make sure everybody in the organisation gets the idea. The short answer is that there is ultimately no making sure of anything as long as people are involved. However, you still can create a huge impact, even though it will hardly be measurable in numbers. Think about ordinary situations, such as waiting for the waiter in a restaurant. Wouldn’t your behaviour change, depending on the behaviour of the waiter? Therefore, I’m convinced that the behaviour of your fellows will change if you change yours, and so forth.

If you are interested in a more thorough understanding of the processes happening in our everyday corporate life, I invite you to invite me for a chat about it. I will discuss the subjects of your interests with you and give you clues on how you can make use of the insight provided by many of the great thinkers in the fields of psychology, process sociology, and complexity sciences.

As a serial CEO and entrepreneur, originally educated in management and business process optimisation, I know about the arrays of management tools and techniques and how they don’t work reliably. That’s why I now use the insight from other fields for my consulting work.

In my articles, I provide a glimpse on some of the most important themes.