Simon Terry

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Work with complexity

If your work is not engaging with complexity, then someone is currently automating, outsourcing or offshoring it. In fact, the boundaries of simplicity are always being expanded. The challenge is to learn to work to tackle the real complexity of our environment and obstacles. We must embrace the real challenges of our work, but this doesn’t always mean we have to work in more complex ways.

After centuries of pushing for simplicity in work, many of our organisations and leaders aren’t ready for the challenge of dealing with complexity. Afraid of what can’t be turned into a process, any complexity is ignored. We are masters of reduction because our organisations are allergic to complexity. We see complexity as a source of unnecessary cost & delay that interferes with efficiency and create undue complications. We focus on the need to avoid working with complexity as if it were the choice to work in more complex ways. Again and again in organisations we are told ‘make it simpler’.

Much of our modern complexity is imposed by our environment and challenges. Our obstacles are the real work we do. Much of the simple, process & rule based work can and will be done by machines. We don’t necessarily need to work in complex ways but we must work with complexity. Anne Marie-McEwan recently wrote a post highlighting the need to focus on complexity in the future of work. Other thought leaders like Harold Jarche, John Hagel, Stowe Boyd and Dave Snowden have been exploring complexity as the domain of the future of work. Uncertainty, networks and ever increasing technical challenges push more complexity at us.

Humanity brings complexity. As we make our work more human and acknowledge wider circumstances and relationships then we need to be working with changing goals, circumstances and rules. Networks shift us from linear approaches to areas where cause and effect can be far more uncertain.

Working with complexity doesn’t have to be complex. In fact often the simplest practices are the most effective when the complexity of our circumstances overwhelm us. We may still use simple practices like experimentation, learning from practice, working out loud, engaging others in meaningful conversation, coaching, leadership and influence, customer service or design, but their application calls for judgment, sense making and expertise in dynamic environments. We also need the simple human skill of learning together. These practices are simple to describe but they are hard to practice because they work with complexity and take the best of our humanity.


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