Complexity – The Productivity Boogie Man

Baton Race 2 WEBComplexity and how it affects productivity seems to be the new boogie man haunting organiztions. The reality is that research by Margaret Wheatly in 1994 and Olson and Eoyang in 2001 brought this Ghoul out of its closet. Needless to say, different factors from different business issues such as technology and the world economic and political stages have added their own unique twists to the complexity of doing business. One factor that has remained constant is people. Zimmerman (1998), as quoted in a study by Peter M. Dickens states, “In every interaction, people mutually adjust their behaviors in ways needed to cope with changing internal and external environmental demands.”

I don’t know so much about the “mutually” part, but yes, as humans we either adapt or die. That’s what we do. Unfortunately, not all of us have the capability of adapting to certain situations, or we don’t adapt as rapidly as some of our teammates, or we fail to see the reason to adapt. Others fail to anticipate a change is in the works and get broadsided by the change. Then there are those who simply don’t want to adapt. Ahhhh, I can see you are already reading between the lines…human behavior can add to the complexity of business.

Behavior at the individual level plays a major role in business complexity. The factor that adds to the complexity at the individual level is that many CEOs fail to see this blind spot, fail to understand it, and therefore, fail to manage it. Where does complexity on an individual level manifest? A case study by McKinsey and a “heat map” generated from their research, indicates both the intensity of complexity as well as ferreting out individual causes. Some of these are

  • confusion around role responsibilities,
  • the ability to handle change effectively
  • working within and around complex systems and processes, and
  • duplication.

Efforts to deal with these take a toll on both individual and organizational energy and productivity. In his Ted Talk “How too many rules at work keep you from getting things done,” Yves Morieux, a senior partner with the BCG consulting firm, offers a clear analogy of what happens to energy during a baton race. When a runner approaches the next runner to hand off the baton, the upcoming runner must shout to notify his or her forward facing teammate that the handoff is approaching. This is done in competition with other racing teams who are also shouting at their handoff teammate. The runner’s energy shits from the legs to the throat. Other energy drains at that time include the arm, the eye, and the brain.

Isn’t this the same in management? The employee or individual who is the most difficult to work with, who doesn’t accept change, who is uncooperative or who doesn’t understand his or her role, or lacks skills, saps the managers energy. The manager’s attention is now taken off the corporate goals and now focuses on the individual. It is not farfetched to say that most every manager has at least one of these scary individuals. Imagine an entire organization with many of these individuals. Productivity is now not just shaking in its boots, but hiding under the desk having been scared away by the terror of complexity. Mr. Morieux takes productivity to a major level of importance in how the lack of it can affect even the living conditions of future generations. He suggests that without optimal productivity, future generations may have smaller roofs over their heads or no roofs at all! That’s powerful. So how do we tame complexity?

In his article, “Strategic OD and Complexity”, Peter M. Dickens offers seven factors that can help.

  1. Executive Support. This isn’t just the “Rah! Rah! Go Team Go!” type of support but rather being the type of person who is visible within the organization. Someone who is not afraid to engage in informal conversation with anyone at any level in the organization and one who treats others with genuine respect.
  2. Safe-Fail Culture. A culture that encourages and tolerates mistakes. These organizations are rare. There ae three factors necessary for a safe-fail organization:
    - No blame or finger-pointing
    - People feel safe to present innovative ideas
    - Finding best practices both inside and outside the organization
  3. Collaborative Decision Making. People within the organization have input into decisions and regular updates are given on performance.
  4. Collaborative Quality. This again, involves people being able to have input into quality processes, measurements, and sharing learning. The ability to provide and receive constructive feedback is also important.
  5. Intentional Learning Processes. In short, does your organization have a learning culture? As a leader, do you lend support to learning both hard and soft skills? You will not achieve results on the hard tasks without the soft skills.
  6. Culture of Experimentation. More or less like the second point above. However, this idea is more like what 3M does in providing the encouragement, resources, and time to experiment. However, it also encompasses being willing to listen to others with different ideas.
  7. Purposeful orientation: This is not the onboarding process although that’s important. This step involves work having a purpose. People whose work has a purpose are much happier, more engaged, and more productive. So it’s a win for the employee, the organization, and the customer. Taking this a step further, according to Mr. Dickens, this step is also about keeping up with trends, new strategies, and the willingness to make the necessary changes.

So the scary monster of complexity can be tamed, controlled, and kept at bay. However, it does require vigilance and cooperation from the entire team. Team members need to have permission to seek out and bring solutions to complex processes, systems, and duplication. This allows the organization many more treats and much fewer tricks.

Thank you for reading this blog. If you would like more information about reducing complexity in your organizaiton email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or call 404-320-7834 or visit

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