GPM First


Managing complexity

In Implementation | 2 comments

I'm looking for a book specifically focused on how to manage and reduce organisational complexity. Which one would you suggest?





  • Jonathan Norman
    By Jonathan Norman

    I've put together a playlist of suggested book titles and one, free-standing chapter
    Let me know if this is the kind of content you were looking for (if not, I'll be happy to recommend other books or chapters)

  • Kaye Remington
    By Kaye Remington

    This is a really interesting question and one that vexes many of us. I teach a masters level subject entitled Managing Project Complexity and my students are probably sick and tired of hearing me saying that we should not necessarily seek to reduce organisational complexity but, as you quite rightly put it, we need to be able to work with it so that we can manage successfully within turbulent environments. Complexity is a necessary reality of a healthy organisation. Working successfully with complexity is vital to innovation and innovation is essential if the organisation is to remain viable. If we try to control complexity by imposing too much artificial order, by forcing complex issues into neat categories for management, we usually find that something eventually pops out of our neat structure to bite us, often causing even more serious damage. From my many conversations with leaders who manage successfully in complex organisations and from personal experience working with complex issues, within complex organisations, we can and must recognise and help others recognise as much of the complexity as possible - its nature and the factors contributing to it. This is good risk management. However one of our most important tasks as leaders is to 'maintain a grasp of the complexity' and interpret it in ways that others working within the organisation can do their vital, specific and detailed work. However, if we as leaders let go of the complexity and narrow our focus we are in danger of only addressing part of the problem and the risks associated with blindness escalate.

    So my advice is rather than trying to control the complexity work with it and prepare to be flexible in order to respond to turbulent environments. Keep rules and proceedures as few as simple possible and make sure there are ways of breaking them, or escalating decision making, if they don't work. As a leader you should put maximum effort into exploring the nature of the complexity, and continue to widen your grasp of the situation as it unfolds, helping other senior leaders to do the same, then place your focus on understanding which parts of the complex situation workers need to know in order to perform their best work and communicating what they need to know in such a way that they are not overburdened. Unfortunately research tells us that in complex situations leaders tend to narrow their focus rather than widen it which means that they are only seeing part of the picture, when they need to see the whole in order to make robust decisions. Leaders I spoke with emphasised the importance of surrounding themselves with very knowledgeable, empowered teams as they often said it was impossible for the leader to know everything.

    My recent book, Leading Complex Projects, attempts to address complexity from the position of the project leader and draws upon the experience of dozens of senior project leaders. All complex projects are managed within and between complex organisations. However when it comes to organisational complexity per se it is hard to go past the early works of H. E. Simon (1973 and years following), Edgar Schein on organisational learning and Ralph Stacey (1991 and 1996).

    Hope this helps and best of luck with your challenges ahead.

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