Abstract and conceptual because nobody deals with complexity in an idealistic, worldview manner where all the parts, connections and total information of a system are fully known and understood. Complexity is not faced from the air; it is faced from behind the barricades.
Paradoxically and perhaps ironically, dealing with complexity is becoming more complex, increasing through globalization, the competition for resources, along with the proliferation of new ideas on the Internet, among other factors. So we have become much better and also faster at increasing complexity than we are at embracing it.
The LinkedIn discussion went beyond academic considerations and dealt with the actual working world views of numerous working professionals about complexity. The precise question posed by the group discussion though was, “Why haven’t managers embraced complexity.” In many cases, it is because they don’t see it as their job to embrace it; their job is to control or conquer it.
Humans interacting with the world and nature, including interacting among themselves, gives rise to complex systems. Nature’s systems and much of what naturally evolves from man’s interaction is what was termed coherent complexity in the Complexity Addressed From On High post. Coherent complexity has a simple face to it and works seamlessly.
Nature, having neither ego nor compassion, can transition from dinosaurs to mammals, abandoning a system that stopped working because of massive environmental change, imposing a new system that quickly flourishes without hesitation. Man attempts to harness these coherent complex systems by layering artificially devised systems over them.
Traditional management frameworks and methodologies are based largely on "machine" analogies" taking a reductionist approach to complexity.
Whether in the private or in the public sector, addressing complexity can mean breaking down a ‘system’ created for a specific purpose within a larger environment’, into smaller, separate components, then delegating work assignments to those having the proper skill sets with control imposed from the top down in a hierarchal manner. This applies whether the system is a business within a new market environment or a government institution within a new sector of public service. As was asserted in the New Community Paradigms Thinking Requires Systems Thinking post:
Government institutions address the complex challenges facing communities by developing complicated processes. Initially, this makes sense as it provides a means of breaking up a complex challenge into manageable steps, providing the means of creating an algorithmic approach, and allocating resources.These man-made systems can begin with a degree of coherence but natural coherent systems inevitably evolve and man made systems inevitably become less coherent and fall apart (see John Gall). Unfortunately, man is less capable of making a seamless transition and attempts to grasp on to what is no longer working. Trying all the harder to control the system even though it is dying under its own weight.
It stops working though when the complexities of the larger system, in which the institution exists, outstrips the capacity of the locally created complicated system. It is made worse if the institutionally created complicated system develops its own inherent hinderances, as a means of ensuring its own survival, making it even more complicated and no longer for the benefit of those it was designed to serve.
'Traditional' management can convey the idea that complexity is a separate and extraneous aspect of the system or environment which only needs to be controlled or removed like sludge from an engine. A large component of management today, at least as represented by the comments generated by the LinkedIn discussion, sees the role of management in dealing with complexity being one of imposing constraints on the system to minimize value erosion or both minimizing value erosion and ensuring value enhancement by deftly handling the various forces pulling in different and invariably opposite directions.
Middle management’s purpose then is to see that the ship does not leak on its journey. The innovation of any value added aspects is to be done by others, elsewhere, the leaders at the top it is the job, not of managers but of entrepreneurs, venture capitalists, engineers, policy makers, thought leaders, philosophers and other assorted nerds.
Traditional management attempts to put complexity in a black box to be viewed through dashboards, serving as crystal balls, and consultants, serving as soothsayers, by the heads of the organization.
Complexity as chaos
Some managers seem to view complexity as being defined by uncertainty, confusion or even as ‘moral chaos’. Some see the ability of the organization in addressing complexity as being more a matter of leadership qualities rather than managerial capabilities. To embrace complexity, top managers have to first become leaders in an autocratic sense which means that they need to have to have an army of unquestioning followers.
The inability of an organization to address complexity is seen as being based on fear, by those in charge not willing to take a bull-by-the-horns approach or on a perceived lack of cognitive ability which can only be addressed by a take charge. visionary leader.
Addressing complexity then becomes a responsibility of certain individuals serving as leaders and top management, assigned control in private companies or in government support by a cadre of experts, rather than by a system or an organization as a whole.
Individual middle and lower managers are seen as being unable to address complexity without upper management oversight. Middle Managers manage their area of responsibility by minimizing complexity to get their job done. The appearance of complexity suggests that the manager in question is either not geared, trained or expected to manage complexity.
Complexity from this vantage point does not need to be embraced, instead it can be over powered by use of Occam's razor, the principle of parsimony. In a world of smaller budgets and shorter deadlines managers are credited with believing that the hypothesis with the fewest assumptions should be the one to be selected.
The assumption is made that if managers are restricted to implementing policy, have no independent role in addressing complexity and are left to simply implementing the organization’s policy that top management simply has to hold it’s line management accountable to impose the desired change.
Complexity is not seen as having any potential value either for the institution or for the individual manager. Business and politics are a matter of competition like a game. The need to address complexity, from this perspective, only arises if your competition is doing so to some advantage. If so, then it is arguably only a matter of quickly catching up.
For the individual manager it can politically be a matter of career suicide to address complexity without first having a known solution or predetermined approach. This is all the more probable in a system that has started to become incoherent and begins developing internal hindrances to cover up the fact that it is no longer in synch with its larger, truly complex environment. At that point, office politics can become more prevalent as managers jockey to maintain their position on a floundering ship.
The inclusion of an excess of politics into a system will likely only increase the level of complexity, or more accurately complications, without contributing any corresponding enhancement of value.
The traditional management approach of quick results within narrowly defined scopes of responsibility within even more bounded limits of control may allow results to be achieved in the near terms but can also mean overlooking hidden complexities that ultimately have a significant bearing on the institution and on the environment in which it exists. One outcome being that ethical values can sometimes take a back seat to seeking expedient monetary value, another being that the man made organizational system becomes irrelevant. The issue often with upper management is that it has limited insight to the problems occurring at the point of relevant interactions, which problematically means that the organization as a whole has very limited insight.
There is though an alternative view, even though the ‘from on high’ perspective on complexity provided by the previous post was ostensibly impractical, it is still true. Complexity cannot be ignored or deferred and it should not be seen as an ominous dark cloud sucking creativity and life out of everything. It should not even be seen as a problem but as an opportunity. We need to develop new paradigms concerning complexity to address the wicked problems facing our communities.