‘No man is an island, entire of itself’, British poet John Donne wrote back in 1624. ‘Each is a piece of the continent, a part of the main’.
Centuries before scientists developed the knowhow to map networks mathematically, Donne was alluding to the web of relationships and interdependencies that shape us all.
In Donne’s era, smart leaders recognised critical connections and exploited them. They made it their business to identify influential actors, their strengths and foibles, their role within a bigger system, and how those alliances and networks could be manipulated for the larger good (or not). Mastery entailed intervening in the system at just the right point to set in motion a chain reaction that would hopefully deliver something like the desired result.
So, what’s changed?
Simplification. Or rather, the Quixotic quest to reduce and ‘manage’ everything.
To simplify is to ‘make (something) simpler or easier to do or understand’, a noble aim, especially for leaders. It’s a deep human yearning to want a simple life, yet it’s misguided.
The ‘business simplification’ trade has boomed in recent years in response to the emergence of network-enabling technologies, the growth and spread of transnational corporations and an explosion of data sources that track, record and mine our every move. People want a solution, a way to cope, fast.
Compared with Elizabethan England, there are indeed many more moving parts. The tsunami of complexity, the speed of change, has many executives grasping at anything that will make life manageable.
Without doubt, matrix organisational structures should be rationalised, red tape cut and investment be channelled into value-creating rather than self-justifying activities. Without doubt, layers of needless complexity could be eradicated with a stroke of a pen.
That, however, won’t alter the fact that we operate in a complex environment. Nothing we do or say can change that. Leaders have a responsibility to acknowledge the world as it is, not as they’d prefer it to be. As Steven Johnsonillustrated in his superb 2010 book, Where Good Ideas Come From, how we humans create and interact mirrors the natural world in terms of obeying the laws of complex systems.
Scientists and philosophers have long wrestled with complexity in an effort to better understand and navigate it, but in business it still gets short shrift. It’s rarely dealt with in depth in management training and on the job is largely ignored, letalone embraced for the opportunities it offers.
Technology, the great enabler of interconnections, the devilish disruptor, will bring a painful end to that.
While some leading companies are now beginning to recognise how patently ill-equipped their executives are to cope with the emergent properties of complex systems, most maintain – proudly, loudly – an industrial-era mindset. They continue to work on pieces and projects and businesses as if they aren’t part of something bigger.
Those leaders who talk about the whole, who acknowledge the vast unknowns inherent in complexity and the need to think long-term, are out of step with the majority.
Complexity remains a dirty word, misunderstood and maligned, something to be addressed and dealt with so leaders can then ‘get on with business’.
What if, instead, we were to acknowledge and embrace complexity as the natural order of things instead of fearing and fighting it? How much more effective would we be, in life and not just business, if we cultivated the mindsets and skills to confidently navigate the currents of change?
‘Abandon the urge to simplify everything,” advised psychiatrist and author, M Scott Peck, “to look for formulas and easy answers, and begin to think multidimensionally, to glory in the mystery and paradoxes of life, not to be dismayed by the multitude of causes and consequences that are inherent in each experience – to appreciate the fact that life is complex.’