Managing in Complexity

Formal training just won’t cut it any more as the primary means by which we prepare and adapt in order to get work done. Training isn’t dead, it’s just not enough, and cannot be the only tool in the box.

As Jay Cross stated in a recent interview:

Formal learning can be somewhat effective when things don’t change much and the world is predictable …

Today’s world is the opposite in every way imaginable …

Things are changing amazingly fast …

There’s so much to learn …

Today’s work is all about dealing with novel situations …

This image, from Cynthia Kurtz’s post, Confluence, clearly shows the challenge we face in our networked organizations competing and collaborating in complex adaptive systems.

The challenge is getting organizations that are used to dealing with the Known & Knowable to be able to manage in Complex environments and even Chaotic ones from time to time. As can be seen in Kurtz’s graphic, that means weaker central control which is, of course, scary for traditional management. This is not a training problem but rather a management issue. How can you be less directive and enable distributed work, and therefore distributed (and undirected) learning? Actually there are historical examples, including guerrilla groups; religious movements; and social organizations. We need to look back as well as into the future. There are lessons and examples that can help us once we cast off some of our industrial management assumptions.

Taylor’s Principles of Scientific Management (1911) inform many of our current practices but there are other models and frameworks available. The first step is seeing that we have a problem and our current models are inadequate. This is a conversation that all business managers and organizational leaders need to have. We should be ready to have many informed conversations about managing in complexity and put forward some plausible options. For further reading:

General framework: Wirearchy

Background & Models: Gary Hamel: Future of Management; Thomas Malone: The Future of Work; Andrew McAfee: Enterprise 2.0

Ideas & Methods: Working Smarter Fieldbook; State of Learning in the Workplace

More conversations: The Smart Work Company; Internet Time Alliance blog;

6 Responses to “Managing in Complexity”

  1. Paul Angileri

    Thanks for posting this. Kurtz’s diagram gave me the idea of applying the concept of the personal political compass ( as a self-check assessment for leaders to take at specific cadences over the course of a project, or for regular organizational reviews. Kurtz’s diagram doesn’t account for spatial variances within each cell, but perhaps the model could be modified to integrate that functional element.

  2. Kare Anderson

    In this less knowable world where organizations are better served by weaker central control it would seem that they need to support learning and practicing self-organizing work – individually and in groups (aka different kinds of collaboration).

    As we stumble towards understanding and sharing insights on the behaviors, pitfalls, steps etc. that work for fruitful collaboration we may, in fact, learn faster because of the increasingly interconnected world that requires we learn how.

    Years ago, Moises Naim wrote a book about where such collaboration in flattened “organizations is happening – the illegal work – trafficking in guns, humans, drugs etc. – and the increasing connections between those “groups.” The book is Illicit

    • Harold Jarche

      John Tropea recently commented on the need for ambient awareness as we become more connected:

      Whether it’s real-time or not; connection, context and ambient awareness is what the concept of KM was about (or should have been about), but it failed as it took a library science approach; it lacked behavioural characteristics that encourage engagement; it lacked these new social tools back in the day; and it was all managed by a centralised, incentivised and predictable “plan and outcome” management approach … more connection and less collection.

      Most 1.0 organizations do not have sufficient ambient awareness of their complex environments, hence the dominance of illegal networks.

  3. Rob Paterson

    Bang on H – Isn’t this the central issue of our time – our most challenging problems are complex and chaotic and we revert to using the POV of Simple in most cases? Is this why we cannot get traction on so many issues? Is the a core problem of media today – it’s all simple to them so they set a false context


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