Dealing with Increasing Business Complexity


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Growing complexity in business is a problem! An IBM study reported that the vast majority of business leaders recognize increasing complexity as one of their top business challenges. Yet, less than half of these leaders believe their organizations are capable of handling it.

According Ron Ashenas, author of Simply Effective, there are ways you can reduce it in your company.

A lot of the complexity is externally imposed. Whether we run a one-person shop or work in a large enterprise we are all confronted with complexity everyday. Too much information, too much new stuff we don’t understand, too little time and so on. Even in a one-person shop, decisions like choosing a telephone service or buying a new computer are complex and time consuming. Worse yet, we often make decision without full understanding of the implications.

But, there is also complexity that is under our control. In a recent video, Ron Ashkenas spells out what you can do about it. The video is an hour long but worth viewing. Here are the high points. 

Ashkenas differentiates between four sources of complexity that grows reactively-to-change in organization.

Managerial Behavior – the demand for more information and details than is necessary. Managers often ask their subordinates for complete report that are time consuming when they really want to know what has changed or out of the ordinary. Most of us can generate a long list of demands that other make of us that seem like “make work.”

Process Evolution – the short story is that processes don’t evolve at the rate of change and too many issues and decision are not efficiently addressed. Decisions become complex because they are seen as exceptions and dealt with on an ad hoc basis, often over and over.

Product and Service Proliferation – When a company comes out with a new product they often create new mechanisms/groups to deal with them which adds to internal complexity. From a customer’s perspective this can get especially frustrating. Ashkenas tells the story of a customer that gets called on by 4 different sales people from one organization.

Structural Mitosis – Mitosis is the biological process of cell division leads to complexity of biological systems. Ashkenas use it as a metaphor to illustrate how external pressures reactively cause us to add complexity to handle each new source of change as exceptions.

What can you do about complexity? As Ashkenas puts it, no one gets up in the morning with the intension of adding to organizational complexity. But, on the other hand, neither do they ask, “what am I doing that increases complexity for others?” What decisions could be simplified? What processes could be simplified?

John Todor
John I. Todor, Ph.D. is the Managing Partner of the MindShift Innovation, a firm that helps executives confront the volatility and complexity of the marketplace. We engage executives in a process that tackles two critical challenges: envisioning new possibilities for creating and delivering value to customers and, fostering employee engagement in the innovation and alignment of business practices to deliver on the new possibilities. Follow me on Twitter @johntodor


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