It’s not complicated, you see

When Bayer’s Material Sciences Division decided to become more collaborative, they realized that the main challenge in promoting knowledge-sharing across organizational boundaries is culture. They deployed the software platform (IBM Connections) without any formal training, saying that when the tool is simple to use, people focus on collaboration, not the software. Their solution was simple.

I know few enterprise software projects that go without a hitch. These are complicated tools and even after implementation most people only use a few functions from the wide array that are available. As complexity increases, and we keep adding new tools to the workplace, the simpler the tool, the easier it will be to implement, especially since the lifespan of our knowledge tools keeps getting shorter.

simplified design for complexity

Complication is the industrial disease. Understanding the difference between complication and complexity is extremely important in today’s workplace. The Cynefin framework  distinguishes between four domains to describe systems:

  • Simple, in which the relationship between cause and effect is obvious to all, the approach is to Sense – Categorise – Respond and we can apply best practice.
  • Complicated, in which the relationship between cause and effect requires analysis or some other form of investigation and/or the application of expert knowledge, the approach is to Sense – Analyze – Respond and we can apply good practice.
  • Complex, in which the relationship between cause and effect can only be perceived in retrospect, but not in advance, the approach is to Probe – Sense – Respond and we can sense emergent practice.
  • Chaotic, in which there is no relationship between cause and effect at systems level, the approach is to Act – Sense – Respond and we can discover novel practice.

Most of today’s larger companies have developed complicated structures. To enable growth and efficiencies, more and more processes have been put in place. Management schools aided and abetted this movement. New layers of control and supervision continue to appear, silos are created, and knowledge acquisition is formalized in an attempt to gain efficiency through specialization. To compensate for complicated processes, some enterprises have attempted to become learning organizations, putting significant effort into training (but not learning). But training design & development just got more complicated.

Complexity is the new normal. Because everything is interconnected by networked technologies today, systemic changes are sensed almost immediately. Reaction times and feedback loops have to get faster and more effective to deal with this. Formal training addresses a mere 5% of workplace learning, and our current models for managing people, training, and knowledge-sharing are insufficient for a workplace that demands emergent practices just to keep up. Knowledge workers today need to connect with others to co-solve problems, but complicated policies, procedures, and guidelines often stop them.

In a short interview, via Luis Suarez, Steve Jobs describes how Apple deals with complexity through simplified design. First of all, there are no committees. Secondly, only one person is responsible for each area (simplified leadership). Finally, teams communicate and collaborate with other teams on an ongoing basis. Jobs says that Apple is run like a start-up.

Organizations need to embrace complexity, instead of treating it as mere complication. We know that  innovation can abound in start-ups, but why not in larger organizations? One problem is that growth creates sustainable efficiencies, which get embedded and codified. These efficiencies can lead to greater market share, which companies become addicted to, not seeing that they are simultaneously becoming less innovative.  A Probe-Sense-Respond approach, or perpetual Beta releases, is necessary to deal with complexity, through constant learning by doing. Continually probing via many new, small initiatives means that organizations have to abandon complicated command and control systems, trust workers, and give them the space to learn while working.

probe sense respond

The challenge is to get the addicts (companies) to stop their lifelong destructive behaviours, which are now catching up with them. It won’t be easy, but it’s not complicated. It’s actually simple 😉

3 Responses to “It’s not complicated, you see”

  1. Chris Jones

    Very nice article. Increasingly people will find it helpful to view the world through the twin lenses of complexity and network sciences.

    Frans Osinga wrote a very informative and personally influential book entitled “Science, Strategy and War”

    John Boyd is one of the most important American strategic thinkers who was heavily influenced by complexity thinking. Recently Eric Ries has promoted an approach that appears to borrow heavily from Boyd’s insights.


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