Management Fads of the 21st Century. #2, Complexity

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The state or quality of being intricate or complicated.” Complexity describes the behaviour of a system or model whose components interact in multiple ways and follow local rules, meaning there is no reasonable higher instruction to define the various possible interactions.””Chaos is the science of surprises, of the non-linear and the unpredictable. It teaches us to expect the unexpected.”

According to the business press and commentators it would seem that since the ‘crisis’, we have somehow stumbled into an unusual and terrifying world of uncertainty, doubt and unpredictability. Prior to 2008, complexity was usually associated with the successful growth of a business – a nice problem to have. Since 2008, it has become a more widespread challenge as managers try to understand the new and shifting environment.

The first issue is the nature of the 2008 shift. It is not a recession, even a great one, but a ‘discontinuity’, a break with the previous times which are not coming back. But more about that in a different article. What it does mean is that whatever is coming in the future will not be a replay of the past.

Mihály Csíkszentmihályi

This break from the past makes everything look unpredictable because we are out of our comfort zone – what we used to do doesn’t seem to work any more; forecasts are wrong and pressure on margins is increasing.  In short, the challenge has increased and we lack the new skills necessary to deal with the new reality. Mihály Csíkszentmihályi called this being out of the Flow, or Zone. Before, we felt motivated and in control – now we feel anxious, worried and powerless.

The solution to this is not to stand still and wait for the good old days to return, they won’t. But there are things we can do:

  1. Accept that the past is not coming back and look to the future, then
  2. Listen to customers & prospects and identify how their needs and wants have changed
  3. Work with your customers to anticipate upcoming, evolving needs.
  4. Distribute this insight/knowledge by cross-functional sharing of the information inside the company.
  5. And the most difficult; Unlearn knowledge, models, techniques and beliefs that are no longer relevant

Of course, none of this will work unless we can accept that the world, and our markets, have not changed, they were always unpredictable and chaotic but we understood the rules of the previous game – until it changed. As Proust said, we don’t need new landscapes, we need new eyes.

Finally, the answer to today and tomorrow’s success is not inside the organisation. All we will find inside the organisation is history, immediately rendered obsolete by the events of 2008 and subsequently. Unusually, one of the current jargon words, co-creating, proves very apt – if we can manage it we need to accept that we no longer know best and the future lies, not in making things, but in co-creating value with your customers. Let me know how you get on.

The brain is a wonderful organ; it starts working the moment you get up in the morning and does not stop until you get into the office.” (Robert Frost)

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