The Key to Managing
Complexity in 2016 – “Seeing the World Through Others’ Eyes”
In the management and governance of every socio-technical-networked, “hyper-complex” endeavour, prospects for sustainable success and improvement depend critically on action taken that is informed through a capacity (and willingness) to see one's own endeavours, in context - not only (a) “objectively and realistically”, but (b) simultaneously “through others’ eyes”.
If asked to boil down managing complexity to a single overriding principle to bring in the New Year, it would be this fundamental but often neglected (in the heat of the moment) proposition; it applies to all levels, from individual relationships and work through to organisations, government and international affairs. Of course, the fundamental principle has to be “unpacked” in order to address any particular situation being faced.
In articulating this principle, I find lessons continuing to emerge from an extraordinarily fortunate, long, personal career and wide-ranging work life encompassing different cultures, organisation types, social and technical disciplines, responsibility levels and activities, (infrastructure planning, operations and regulation, technical investigations and analysis, engineering management, government policy formation and implementation), with their mix of successes and difficulties. Last year (2015) provided opportunity, through selective projects and study, to pursue particular related interests in “Managing Complexity”, and to refine, test and present key principles.
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After a 2015 that led me along different paths (from work on cyber-security and networks, to studying ideas on philosophies and the Koran), one imperative continually re-surfaces; it is essential for effectively managing - and living well with - complexity in practice, at all levels of endeavour.
The overriding imperative is to have the capacity (and willingness) to see one's own endeavours, in context - not only (a) “objectively and realistically”, but (b) simultaneously “through others’ eyes”. It applies everywhere - from individual relationships and work, to organisations small or large, and through to diverse movements, institutions, cultural contexts, governments and international affairs (with all their politics, systems, decision-making, conflicts and even aggressions and defence) - if neglected under "real-world" complex conditions, ultimate failure is assured.
- The first branch of the imperative relates to understanding how things work and interconnect in the endeavour and its environment.
- The second is perhaps harder, requiring of the manager an understanding of the perspectives and thinking of others - those who are engaged in or impacted by decisions in the endeavour.
While the first informs decisions that are realistic, the second informs one about others who may be in a position to perversely thwart or disrupt his or her efforts (or alternatively to support them) - their interests, capabilities, agendas and values.
Interestingly, it is the second that, although obvious, deceptively simple, and less "technical", I observe being so often neglected (especially in the heat of the moment - emergencies or conflicts):
- at one extreme, the narrow rationalist/managerialist - too focused on a particular model or "systems" and pre-determined KPIs to see the bigger forest for the trees.
- at the other extreme, the narrow ideologists - ever discontent, being unable to appreciate either inconvenient realities impeding their fulfilment, or other genuinely held (even if mistaken) perspectives competing for consideration.
Other Key Take-Aways?
In applying the fundamental imperative - having and developing capacity and willingness for seeing the world in context not only “objectively and realistically”, but also “through others’ eyes”, you don’t have to agree with others’ views, but sound management demands considerable effort in understanding the perversity, diversity and impacts of others’ agendas and their capabilities.
To sustain this in a society that values both liberty and responsible engagement of its people, a new emphasis in general education is critical - it must move away from narrow “indoctrination by teaching” (and ever-more detail) to encouraging as broadly as possible a capacity and passion in the next generation of students (who will wear the consequences of their decisions) for (a) analysis and understanding of their worlds, (b) critical thinking about alternative ideas, values and behaviours, without limitation, and (c) effective, civil free communication and expression.
My observation of the social media - mirroring as it does the views of many people who think in terms of unidimensional, narrow solutions – is that these capacities need massive development effort everywhere - not least in “advanced” western societies where so many pride themselves on their material, working and moral superiority, without appreciating the fragility of their institutions.
Discussion and Problem Solving in 2016
It has been a privilege over 2015 to share ideas with colleagues, clients and others, to engage in public correspondence and also private consideration of particular situations - all with a view to better understanding their circumstances, managing their efforts, and learning through both successes and difficulties.
I look forward to continuing this through 2016 as circumstances permit.
Some Broad Lessons Learned
Lessons reinforced in managing endeavours under conditions of “hyper-complexity”, include:
· Opportunistic behaviour will ultimately displace or 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 promotion 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)
2015 professional development
A presentation to in August to Engineers Australia, Sydney College of Leadership and Management on “Managing Complexity” was well received by some eighty attendees – see https://www.engineersaustralia.org.au/sites/default/files/ieaust_-_aug15_couch-complexity_-_slides_fp_2w.pdf or for a summary of key points, https://www.capl.com.au/index.php/blog-zoo/item/managing-complexity-a-network-industries-perspective.html ).
As part of my year’s study, I also took the opportunity to (re-)read the Koran (English translation) and commentary (all particularly relevant in light of international events and current policy controversies in Australian government and society), to build on some vews of political history, and to look at philosophical explanations of how moral frameworks, ideologies and supporting institutions can emerge in different social circumstances, e.g:
· How deception and ambiguity, offering unrealistic commitments/promises, and opportunism (as well as deliberate conflict), can be used cleverly to gain (and ultimately misuse) influence, power and authority, particularly in vulnerable groups.
· Parallels between different religious and other ideological institutions and movements and their reform/change processes.
At the technical end of the “complexity spectrum”, I also attended short courses on cyber-security management (including brief assignments) and app coding, and participated in selected forums on managing technology, governance, innovation and industry development.