The Complications of Complexity

Something that is complex, is intricate or complicated. Admittedly, there are many things in life that are complex by nature and not easily simplified. For example, a surgeon working on a very difficult case, must understand complexity and be able to accomplish his or her purpose in helping the patient. An engineer designing a major bridge to carry millions of cars safely on an interstate over a body of water each year, must understand complexity. An architect designing a high rise building has to understand the complexity of design.

It seems though, that organizations have a tendency to drift toward greater complexity, and it is often unnecessary. What are some of the sources of unnecessary complexity in organizations?

The first source of unnecessary complexity is when we lose sight of our priorities. The fact is, no individual or organization can do everything well. Attempts to do everything well, usually end up in mediocrity and a lack of focus. An organization must continually come back to its main priorities in order to be successful in its main reasons for existing.

A second source of unnecessary complexity in organizations is when we periodically add layers and systems to an organization without subtracting anything. Sometimes so much time has passed since something was added, that we are not even sure why it was added. When we add layers and systems and even staffing to cover them, we should have a clear purpose regarding why we are doing it, and consider taking something else away.

A third source of unnecessary complexity in organizations is when leaders become more concerned about legitimizing their jobs, than advancing the organization. If words, tools, systems, and structures are continually added, someone has to run them. Leaders can sometimes create an environment, which could be consciously done or not, where they are needed. If the people being led do not understand where they are being led or how, it can create a need for someone to lead them.

A fourth source of unnecessary complexity in organizations is information dump. People get overwhelmed when the are bombarded with voluminous information, much of which is not necessary to get from one point to another. It is helpful to streamline information and terminology for clarity. It takes more effort to communicate with clarity than it does to dump information.

The sources of complexity identified here are not exhaustive, but they represent the problem well. The obvious question is how do we reduce complexity in our lives and in the organizations we serve?

Return to your priorities. What do you want to accomplish, and does the level of complexity serve you well in moving toward success in those priorities?

Evaluate your approach periodically. Ask, what do we need to continue in, and what do we need to stop doing so we can be more effective?

Consider your motivations. Am I leading in this way so people are dependent on me, and I am needed, or so people can be freed up to do what they are supposed to be doing?

Assess your communication. Are you communicating in a way that the people you are communicating with can readily understand what you are saying? Is the information you are sharing clear, and digestible, or overwhelming for those with whom you are communicating?

When possible, simplify complexity rather than complicating simplicity. The people you lead will be grateful.