Beware Self-Inflicted Complexity

Beware Self-Inflicted Complexity

06.29.10Ron Ashkenas

Are YOU adding to the complexity?

If you've read the papers lately, it sounds like "complexity" is the explanation for many of the world's problems. A feature story in the Sunday New York Times business section, titled "It's Complicated," suggested that too much complexity was behind the financial crisis, the difficulty in understanding health care reform, and the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. The author of the article, David Segal, summed it up this way: "Complexity used to signify progress...the riddle of some advance in technology. Now complexity lurks behind the most expensive and intractable issues of our age."

Of course blaming complexity for various problems sounds good and may even feel good, but it doesn't really accomplish anything unless we can do something about it. But in order to move into action, we first need to look at the difference between naturally occurring (and perhaps inevitable) complexity and complexity that is unnecessary and self-generated. With the former, the best we can do is to learn how to live with it; while the second type of complexity we can attack. Unfortunately, the two are often intertwined. And that's where things really start to get complex.

Let's look at the ecological disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. Many aspects of this drama are just plain complex. Trying to stop the flow of an oil gusher 5000 feet below the surface in extremely cold water is a complex engineering challenge – as was the original exploration, drilling, and construction of the oil rig in the first place. Similarly, trying to contain the oil and limit the environmental impact is also complex, involving multiple technologies, the coordination of public agencies and private sector firms, and the mobilization of huge amounts of equipment and people. This is "inevitable complexity" – the application of advanced technologies and human ingenuity to solve new problems in uncharted and unclear waters (excuse the metaphor).

What makes the Gulf situation so frustrating however is that a certain amount of unnecessary complexity may have contributed to the disaster in the first place, and since has made it harder to resolve. On the BP side it seems like operating pressures and quality assurance procedures were not properly balanced; and the accountability between BP and the operating company was unclear. From a safety perspective, the mixture of regulatory authority and industry support made it difficult to insist on compliance to disaster prevention standards. Then after the accident the confusion of responsibility between BP, the oil rig operator, and federal and local government slowed down the response and created disjointed and unclear communications.

It's possible to argue that these complexity issues are also the inevitable result of having multiple organizations trying to work together. But that would be a cop out. If the leaders of BP and government agencies had a constant and consistent focus on clarifying accountability, sharpening regulatory authority, and making it easy to do things the right way, the Gulf spill might have been prevented. This type of complexity is self-created by the way we structure and manage our organizations. And when combined with the already-existing complexity of technology and business, disasters can occur.

But this isn't just a problem for large-scale public issues. Every organization includes a mix of inevitable and preventable complexity. We have complex technologies and manufacturing procedures, multi-stream product discovery and development processes, intricate partnerships with suppliers and customers. All of these are complex. But when we amplify the complexity by adding unnecessary layers of management, confused accountability, slow and unclear decisions, garbled communications, and lack of focus, it's our own fault. Maybe we don't create ecological disasters, but we do create small ones in our own organizations every day.

It's easy to bash complexity. But we need to also look in the mirror and ask ourselves whether we are adding to the complexity.

What's your view?

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Ron Ashkenas' blog post on Harvard Business Review. Join the discussion.

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