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Simple or Complex – It’s the difference between success & failure

A few decades ago the message was KISS – ‘Keep it simple stupid!’ Today, it is the opposite – ‘Embrace Complexity!’ There is no doubt that organizations, markets and even our lives are becoming more and more complex. However, our research suggests that while the level of complexity matters, it is not the key factor, but rather how we engage with it.

Engaging successfully with complex projects and initiatives is something that organizations and teams can do successfully. The problems occur when we treat complex projects or initiatives as straight-forward or simple. Thus, the risk comes not from complexity, but from over-simplification.

Most strategic initiatives have a high level of complexity. They have many moving parts and defy the quick fix or silver bullet.  They are difficult to manage or predict and cannot be solved by traditional linear approaches. The problem is that when initiatives are simplified that is exactly what happens:

When complex problems get simplified they are handed-over to one or a few experts who break them down into their component parts, work on them in isolation and apply purely technical solutions (when more is needed). It is all very ‘back and white’ – the hypotheses and assumptions that characterize projects at the start, when often repeated enough start to be treated as fact. The result is frustration and disappointment.

Complex projects require engaging multiple actors and multiple perspectives, working on the whole rather than the parts and adaptive (requiring a change of thinking or behaviour) as well as technical solutions. They require embracing uncertainty and the ‘grey zone’ – dealing with assumptions, hypotheses, and risks.

Complex means that the outcome cannot be guaranteed – things don’t happen in a linear and predictable fashion. When the work is complex it is easy to underestimate what is required, how long they will take, or what they will cost. 

As a result, our goals are often overly ambitious. It is not that planning complex work is futile, but rather that it requires special care. 

Because it is difficult to confidently predict the outcome, an iterative, plan do review, approach is required.  

Allowing for contingencies is important in respect of complex work.  So too is setting out assumptions and testing or validating them.

Complex work is likely to require a more sophisticated approach to planning as well as to execution.  Conforming to the process won’t be enough, what worked before may not be a guide.

Complex problems demand greater creativity and innovation, as well as curiosity and experimentation. The approach must be an agile or iterative one, where there is fast learning and continuous feedback.

How complex is your initiative?

On a scale from 1 to 10, where 1 is ‘simple’ and 10 is ‘complex’. Where would you put your project or initiative?

It takes a conversation among a number of people to get a real feel as to the complexity of a project tor initiative. So, gather a range of perspectives and use the table here as a checklist.

Our data suggests that the risk of oversimplification is greatest where an initiative represents a solo-run by one department or function.  Engaging with complexity requires breaking down silos and effective cross-functional collaboration. There is unseen complexity, when a project or initiative is looked at through the lens of just one function or discipline. 

If there are high levels of confidence ask: Could we be oversimplifying things?  Before you answer pause to reflect on the factors that make a strategic initiative complex and therefore more difficult to manage.

Complicated or Complex?

There is complicated and there is complex1. That may sound like a play on words, but think of it this way:  A jig saw may be complicated with many parts. However, a Rubik’s Cube is complex, not only does it have many parts but they interact with each other – if you move one then the others are affected too. 

A key factor that distinguishes complex projects is that you cannot work on one part (stakeholder, risk, work stream, etc.) in isolation. Take the launch of a new Financial Services Product, marketing cannot work in isolation of IT, Compliance or Finance for example.  All the parts must work well together – effective cross-functional collaboration is key. Most ambitious projects are not complicated jig-saws, but rather a complex Rubik’s cube.

The danger is that complexity is often hidden. This results in misplaced certainty. That explains why so many projects are overly optimistic regarding timelines, budgets and so on.

‘We have moved from a complicated world to a complex one. The two aren’t the same – and complexity isn’t just complicated on steroids. Complicated environments are linear, follow rules and are predictable; like an assembly line, they can be planned, managed, repeated and controlled.’
Margaret Heffernan2

  1. See The Cynefin Framework by Kurtz and Snowden in “The New Dynamics of Strategy, IBM Systems Journal 2003” []
  2. Margaret Heffernan, Uncharted: How to Map the Future, Simon & Schuster UK, 2020 []

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