Embracing complexity at work

After our session at Online Educa this morning (well, it was early morning for me anyway) I thought some more about one of the models I used. The Cynefin framework is a good way to explain different types of work and how training can only help in some cases: when work is simple (cause & effect are obvious) or complicated (cause & effect can be determined through analysis). Training is of little use in developing the necessary emergent practices for dealing with complex problems in our work environment.

cynefin and training

Source: Wikipedia

My basic guideline for the workplace is that:

  • Simple work will be automated
  • Complicated work will go to the lowest bidder, as processes & procedures become more defined and job aids more powerful (e.g. mortgage applications)
  • Complex work requires creativity and is where the value of the post-industrial (network era) organization lies
  • Dealing with Chaos sometimes has to be confronted and this requires creativity as well as a sense of adventure to try novel approaches

Reading between the lines of many comments from Online Educa, one thematic question would be: This stuff may be interesting from a conceptual perspective, but what can organizations do right now to address increasing complexity? Initially, I would say there are two laws at work over which you will have little control:

  1. The bottom of the complexity pyramid (simple work) will continue to be automated.
  2. All work that is merely complicated will be done as cheaply as possible (outsourced, partially automated, done as cheap piece work)

Here is a possible strategy to consider:

Work that is merely complicated does not require all of a worker’s cognitive capabilities (really). Use this cognitive surplus and couple it with a time surplus, like Google’s 20% for engineers to work on pet projects. Have incentives for workers to find the complexities in their work and try out creative ways to address them. This will encourage people to move up the creative ladder, into more complex work. Remember, almost all of this complexity is man-made. We decided to network the planet and increase the speed of human communications. We will continue to create more complex work to do.

As for people whose work already requires creativity in dealing with complexity there are a few things they can do. First, they can become mentors and guides for those doing merely complicated work. This is one way to address Richard Florida’s concern that we need to make the service industries more creative. Who we work with makes a significant difference in how creative we are. Everyone can be creative – just watch this video involving the highest and lowest paid staff in a hospital creating a powerful message together.

Those dealing with complex work situations can also be further encouraged to take on Chaotic situations. It’s one thing to be creative and quite another to jump into the unknown by taking action without any idea of what will happen. Here’s a good video on systemic, organizational change explaining some aspects of simple, complicated, complex and chaotic work environments.

The bottom line is to make organizations more flexible, able to deal with change and even create change. Complexity should be embraced as the future of work and the key to an engaged workforce. Few are bored with complex challenges.  The more people who are engaged creatively, the more effective the organization will be and no, there isn’t a course you can take to address this.

7 Responses to “Embracing complexity at work”

  1. virginia Yonkers

    Great post. I wish our educational system in the US would embrace this model. One idea that came to mind as I read this was that Training is appropriate in simple or highly complex systems, but facilitating and leadership is necessary in emerging systems. And by leadership, I don’t mean telling people what to do, but rather making decisions when needed but also gathering information from “followers”, entering into dialogue with stakeholders, scanning the environment for challenges and opportunities, and motivating others to be comfortable to think outside the box (creativity).

    • Harold Jarche

      Thanks for your comments, Virginia. I think that in complex environments, where work practices are emergent, everyone needs to play a leadership role. However, it’s network leadership, not hierarchical leadership that’s needed, and this turns the industrial concept of followers on its head.

  2. Kyle

    I like your organizational ideas here. Understanding complexity is a deep issue not only in learning, but is a overarching issue in modern society. While I think I understand the gist of complex/complicated/chaos/simple, I’m not sure the nomenclature and organization in the graph are as good as they could be. Does it make sense from an x/y axis perspective, what other terms could be used?

  3. Howard Johnson

    I love your analysis and for some reason it seemed to have touch a neuron in me somewhere. I feel like drawing a box around the left side labeled talent development. I’m think of contrasting training as skill specific and talent development as whole person – whole environment – whole organization – strategic capability development. I have experience in education, more so than on the industrial human resource side – so I’m not sure that I’m using the best terms. Do you have an opinion. Thanks


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