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Do You Have a Complexity Complex?

Are you overwhelmed by how fast the world moves these days? Does it seem like everything is getting more complicated? Do you sometimes feel like you might be out of your league when it comes to leading an organization in today’s chaotic markets?

Welcome to business leadership in the 21st century.

Technology was supposed to make our lives simpler. While it’s safe to say that technology has simplified many tasks, activities, and processes, I don’t think anyone would argue that it has made our lives more complicated. Add instant communications (with anyone, anywhere in the world, at any time), information overload, and a massive increase in global competition into the mix, and no wonder that many of today’s business leaders are wondering how to keep up and get ahead.

I first wrote about the problem of complexity as a serious leadership problem earlier this year ( Since then I’ve been paying a lot more attention to what I’ve come to call the “complexity complex.”

I call it a complex because while most leaders acknowledge the challenge of managing complexity more effectively, they also say that they feel ill equipped to do so. Many feel like the knowledge and skills that enabled them to attain positions of leadership within their organizations are no longer sufficient for today’s market realities. So they understand that the problem exists, but they’re not sure what to do about it.

How can you tell if you’re suffering from a complexity complex? Look for the following symptoms:

Feeling overwhelmed with too much data. This first symptom should come as no surprise. These days, we all feel overwhelmed by the massive amounts of data hitting us on a daily basis. The trick is not to try to process it all, but to get very good at two things: sorting out which information is most relevant to your business, and developing systems and processes for turning meaningless data into useful information.

Unable to pull the trigger on key decisions. Hesitancy in decision-making often goes hand-in-hand with information overload. As business leaders, we’ve been trained to gather all the information (or as much as possible) before making key strategic decisions. But it’s no longer possible to get all the information. In a world where speed is of the essence, delaying important decisions (or not making them at all) can wreak just as much havoc as making the wrong ones. The strategy here is to gather information from a variety of sources, including those from outside your industry, so that you end up with multiple perspectives and viewpoints rather than a narrow frame of reference.

Same ways of thinking and doing things. This symptom results from some very basic human traits: fear of the unknown coupled with the assumption that if it has always worked for me, I am sure it will still work. As human beings, we don’t like to stray very far from our comfort zones. So we stay in situations that aren’t working out simply because they feel comfortable. For example, we stay in bad marriages or continually make unhealthy lifestyle choices because it’s easier to deal with the known than the discomfort of the unknown.

In business, this shows up in several ways. We cling to what we “know” to be true about our customers and markets, even when they are clearly changing in front of our eyes. We continue to believe and behave as if what made us successful in the past will continue to make us successful in the future, even when the evidence suggests otherwise. And we keep on doing the same things over and over (maybe just a little louder), even when we’re not getting the results we want and expect.

Constantly surprised by changes in your industry. Even the most diligent leaders get caught off guard every now and then by unexpected events in their markets or industries. But if you find yourself getting surprised by internal and external events on a regular basis, the best you can hope for is play catch-up with the market leaders. Not a good recipe for success!

Lack of focus. This is by far the most common, and dangerous, symptom. With increased complexity comes more choices, and I see many companies struggling to decide where they want to go and which opportunities they want to pursue. Lack of focus manifests itself in many ways. Constantly changing directions in midstream. Lack of clarity around customer wants and needs. Difficulty in developing successful new products and services. Poor execution of just about anything and everything you do. Until you get very clear on what winning looks like for your organization so everyone can focus and prioritize, complexity will always win out.

Defining a problem is one thing. Solving it is another. There are numerous tips, techniques, and tools you can use to deal with your complexity complex. Stay tuned for those.

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