August 2015 public presentation on Managing Complexity
A presentation in August 2015 to Engineers Australia, Sydney College of Leadership and Management on “Managing Complexity” (with a particular focus on networked industries) was well received by some eighty attendees, largely engineering students, aspiring to positions of leadership and management in their professions – see
- Full slides and accompanying notes: https://www.engineersaustralia.org.au/sites/default/files/ieaust_-_aug15_couch-complexity_-_slides_fp_2w.pdf
- Further notes and summary of main points (below)
Comment on this and similar topics may be entered via the LinkedIn Group, "Managing Complexity (Socio-technical Systems and Endeavours)" [see https://www.linkedin.com/groups/7012430/ to see the discussions or join the group].
Managing Complexity - summary of key presentation points
- Keys for managing endeavours in “turbulent” conditions [highly interconnected, socio-technical, subject to disruption (whether hostile or supportive, from both internal and external sources)]:
o The need, if the endeavour is to survive and prosper, for maturity to:
1. Understand and embrace the complexity:
• covering the internals and externals of the endeavour,
• utilizing all available resources (beyond just assets and people),
• with examples.
2. Promote and guide sound, distributed decision making so that it will:
• be aligned to the wellbeing of the endeavour,
• follow a small number of key process steps – any one of which if omitted will jeopardise prospects,
• extend to everyone involved,
• strive for improvement, identifying and evaluating all prospective alternatives,
• end up covering everything that is needed, where and how it is needed (including planning, organizing, supervision, control, accountabilities, compliance, HR, finance, IT, logistics, all oriented to managing risks and value).
3. Throughout the endeavour, encourage and distribute aligned, effective leadership / influence (as well as the above decision making).
o With these done well, innovation (and diversity its essential ingredient) provides the necessary insights and positive inspiration for constructive change.
- Keeping it simple - without suggesting that it is easy:
o Also distinguishing fads and fashions from substance in management theory.
- The significant, potential role for Systems Engineering disciplines (and systems management generally) in Leadership and Management, whether explicit or implicit,
o SE is not just in the back office, as in the past (like quality, safety, risk, and HR used to be), but as a core part of the business.
- Examples given:
o Security (esp Cyber-security).
o Innovation – particularly adapting ideas already established in other arenas.
o Energy distribution – with its changing environment (technical, commercial, regulatory, social) and diversifying customer preferences,
o All endeavours as they become increasingly networked (and vulnerable),
- These findings based on informal consensus process among experienced colleagues from a range of disciplines in a wide range of work environments, and earlier papers presented.
- Conclusion – keys for surviving and succeeding in a hyper-complex environment:
o Everyone (without exception) fully engaged,
o Keeping it simple (but done well) so all will know and internalize the key points,
o The endeavor includes many outside the formal organisation (not just employees), and all can be variously constructive or destructive, whether by intent or inadvertence, or even hostility,
o Application to all industries and endeavours as they are becoming increasingly networked and vulnerable to disruption:
• “Disruption, Hostility and Competition will ultimately outwit Complacency and Rigidity”
• “The Information is the Infrastructure; its Integrity the Imperative”
Broad lessons learned
Lessons outlined in managing endeavours under conditions of “hyper-complexity”, included:
· Opportunistic behaviour will outwit complacency and rigidity [e.g. uninformed opposition and narrow/centralised command and control],
· Identifying and profiling key interests - others' agendas, capabilities, diversity and opportunities – is critical to the prospects of success
· Embracing diversity - not simply as a “feel-good” policy – is essential to sound decision making and innovation,
· Establishing the agility and alignment needed to handle hyper-complexity, requires the encouragement of accountable and effective leadership/influencing and decision making (within each person’s area of responsibility), distributed throughout and at all levels of the endeavour.
· Decision making processes and their communication must be readily conducted and simple (that is not to say they are easy)
"Complex Adaptive System" models and “Complex adaptive systems thinking” (CAST) provide a powerful (not exclusive) toolkit for understanding and managing “hyper-complexity” – i.e. the “real-world” interactions between “systems” (how things work and connect) and “people” (multiple autonomous agents).
Examples presented from most recent experience included:
- Business management - businesses’ resistance to change, failing to understand and anticipate/exploit disruption and opportunity, or seeking to avoid the dynamics of their environment
- Cyber-security - the continuing growth of information connectivity and consequent vulnerability to hostile penetration of physical and virtual networks.
- Policy formation - Challenges in government and businesses, external/interjurisdictional relations and governance, conflicts and resolution.
Key ingredients and examples: Diversity, Leadership/influencing, Innovation, Decision Making (at all levels)
In the presentation, I emphasised diversity of backgrounds and experience of people (influencers and decision makers at all levels who can be involved with an endeavour) as an enabler of innovation and sound decision making.
Examples were discussed illustrating how models of Complex Adaptive Systems behaviour in one field can be used to discern patterns of behaviour in totally unrelated fields, and help discovery of innovative solutions that work. For example (although somewhat extreme to illustrate the point), certain models of antibiotic resistance can assist understanding the way that:
extreme radicalist behaviours can escalate when their “anti-social” ideological movements and influences are “defeated” or supressed,
- in industrial relations, driving private agendas underground, can encourage perverse reactions leading to greater productivity losses, "incidents", and ultimately other serious damage, and
- seemingly innocuous actions from disgruntled or "careless" junior workers - if inappropriately managed - can easily be escalated by them and other onlookers to harm organisation reputation.
Other examples included:
- Distribution infrastructure - how management techniques successfully used in one industry may have application in others (e.g. telecommunications, energy), and how new technology can disrupt longstanding, inflexible business models,
- Cybersecurity - clients evaluating "new" products being considered for purchase,
- Contract formation and supply chain management - where parties and other interests (including different levels of internal management) have agenda misalignments that need to be anticipated, understood and managed.