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Treating the Complexity Complex

In my last blog, I suggested that many business leaders are struggling to deal with the increasing complexity of today’s business world. Here are some strategies you can employ to cope with this emerging “complexity complex.”

Let’s start by defining what we mean by saying the world is getting more complex.

We all know the world is moving faster all the time. And we all know that businesses now face more competition than ever. But there’s more to complexity than just speed of change and increased competition.

The markets we serve are not just changing faster, they’re changing more radically and becoming less predictable. They’re also becoming increasingly interconnected and interrelated in ways we never had to deal with before. As a result, the leadership skills, thinking patterns and decision-making processes we grew up with have less and less application to today’s world.

The solution isn’t working harder or smarter because we’re already doing both. And it doesn’t involve getting better at managing change because most of us are already doing that as well. Rather, dealing with complexity involves making our organizations and ourselves more fluid, flexible, and quick to respond. This requires moving away from static strategic planning and focusing on developing operating agility.

To become more fluid and flexible:

Get clear on winning. Start by painting a very clear picture of what winning looks like for your organization. Your strategies for getting there may change in response to internal and external events. But when complexity comes at you like a bullet train out of control, your vision of what winning looks like will serve as the north star that keeps everyone focused and moving in the right direction.

Challenge your assumptions. How many times have you heard me say this before? Often, our biggest enemies are the unspoken attitudes, beliefs and assumptions about our customers, markets and businesses that we cling to, even in the face of contradictory evidence. Regularly challenge your own “thought bubbles,” and learn how to recognize them in others. Deliberately seek out different perspectives, especially when they contradict what you know to be true. Ask a lot of “what if?” questions.

Embrace ambiguity. For years we’ve struggled to learn how to manage change. Ironically, just when we’re getting good at it we need to stop managing change and start creating it! Embracing ambiguity means getting comfortable with not having all the answers. It means accepting that there may be more than one right answer. It means having the courage to make tough decisions even when we don’t have all the data. Uncertainty is the new status quo, so get used to it.

Make disruptive choices. Learn to create new ways of working and meeting customer needs. Practice thinking differently by conducting “pre-mortems,” whereby you evaluate your decision-making process before implementing major decisions. Teach your team to get really good at idea generation, evaluation and execution. Seek new ways of delivering value that fundamentally change the customer’s relationship to your products and services. In a complex world, incremental change will not position you as a market leader.

Reinvent customer relationships. Managing complexity requires collaborating with customers in new and different ways. Invite customers to participate in your new product and service development efforts. I’m not talking about focus groups or annual surveys. Been there, done that! I’m talking about making your customers an integral part of the new product development process, from the early stages of idea generation all the way to market entry. Use social media and other new technologies to create communities around your products and services. Most important, implement processes for staying up to date with your customers’ constantly changing needs.

Build operating dexterity. Structure your organization so that it can realign quickly in response to unexpected events. Learn how to say “no” to opportunities that take you off focus, unless you have redefined winning and agreed to the new destination. Create laser-like focus and prioritization at every level, keeping your picture of winning visible at all times by communicating it and keeping it physically in front of people on a regular basis. The ultimate goal is developing the ability to move fast with focus and flexibility. (I often refer to this as strategic agility.)

Did I mention that you have to do all this while informing, inspiring and engaging your whole team/organization? Well, nobody said business leadership would be easy! In fact, I find it more challenging than ever. But when we get it right, I also find it more fulfilling than ever.

Stay tuned for more tips on dealing with complexity.

Treating the Complexity Complex


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