Ignoring Complexity

We like business to be simple. Many of our management practices ignore complexity. Time to re-embrace reality.

At a recent Responsive Org event in Melbourne led by Julian Waters-Lynch we were discussing the Cynefin Model. The Cynefin model is a very useful model for understanding responses to differing levels of complexity of the environment.  However what surfaced in that conversation was how badly most businesses perceive their whole system and environment.

Our businesses are deliberately dumb. They exclude information to make our execution of a sustainable business model simple and efficient.

Let’s take pricing as an example. Traditional business make pricing a simple equation of cost, margin and volume to maximise shareholder return. They ignore loss growth, customer engagement, customer retention, reputation, supply chain impacts, sustainability, purpose or other systemic impacts related to changing prices.

When management began a century ago with high transportation and information costs, excluding information often had limited consequences. The competitor or customer in the next market who used that information had real barriers to overcome to make you pay for a bad decision. Pretending complex or complicated environments were simple had less impact on your business

Moving to today the global connection of customers, competitors and the universe has changed those barriers. Businesses who pretend that a complex or complicated scenario is simple will feel the effects back through their networks. It is becoming harder and harder to ignore complexity and simple strategies in complex and complicated scenarios are increasingly threatened by responses from customers, employees or other stakeholders who see the world as it is.

Harold Jarche has argued simple work will be automated and merely complicated work done cheaply.  For innovation, purposeful work and creative potential our organisations need to re-embrace the complexity that surrounds them. Only by genuinely exploring emergent practice will organisations challenge themselves and their people to create sustainable value. Dumb won’t cut it anymore.

When More Talk is More Action


‘Less Talk More Action’ is a common refrain in management. The best next step may involve more talk and more action.

A bias to action in management is a good way to overcome the inertia of bureaucracy. It helps foster change by requiring that we find ways to move forward. Like all good things a preference for action can be overdone. The traditional engineering mindset of management can come to view talk as a wasteful distraction. In management conversations in all kinds of organisation it is not uncommon to hear,

“This talk is too complicated and going on too long. Let’s do this”

In complicated and complex scenarios that involve systemic issues like culture, the best next step at times may involve more talk and more action. Realising the potential of people as a leader can often mean having to step back from one’s own action orientation to discuss the way forward with others, to gather inputs and to allow others to shape the path through collaboration. We need to recognise in leading the network complexity of the new ways of work that action alone may not be the wisest path.

The Time for Action

The Cynefin framework offers us a useful model to see where we need to demonstrate a bias for action over talk.  If the situation falls in the Simple domain, where cause and effect is clear, then action is straightforward once the position is known. We should have a strong bias for More Action and Less Talk. 

If the situation is truly in a Chaotic domain, where cause and effect are unrelated, then action offers the best chance to move somewhere else. talk may add some value after we act to help understand the environment is chaotic.  However it is action first that will get us out.

Much of our work in organisations is spent in the Complicated or Complex domains of the Cynefin model where launching straight into Action may not be all that is required.

When The Action includes Talk – Sense Making

Each domain of the model requires decision makers to make sense of what is going on in the environment. That sense making process may need discussion with other participants, particularly in the complicated and complex domains where patterns of cause and effect are unclear. For example discovery and analysis are both tasks that need not be purely data-driven exercises. People may need to debate the situation and the work collaboratively to determine the relationships in place. Action have a collaborative element too, requiring discussion as the action progresses to implementation.

Making collective sense of an environment where cause and effect is not straightforward is essential to winning people’s engagement in action and especially action that creates change. The more complex the environment  the more important this engagement will be. Without an ability to make sense of the environment and the strategy to be put into place, people will be at best disengaged and at worst actively oppose the approach.

When Action and Talk Go Together – Working Out Loud

In a Complex domain, the recommended course of action is to probe. A probe is an action done with an intent to learn. In other words, it is an experiment.

To maximises the value of the learning and the effectiveness of the experiment, we often need to communicate that experimental intent. A strategy of probing, sensing and responding can appear confusing to others without a declared intent. Leaders who are trying to take their team on a series of experiments need to be clear on the nature and learning goals of the experiments.

Leverage others to design the experiment and keep you true to your goal of learning. Too many experiments get converted into actions by the management mindset of showing progress at any cost. Think of all the pilots that slid into full-scale launch because nobody wanted to declare them a failure. Working out loud can also help with accountability and also leverage the contributions and learnings of others to develop the collective sense of a complex domain.

Why Talk Matters – Realising Potential in the Future of Work

As Harold Jarche explains in his description of the Cynefin model for the future of work, a key role for leadership in the changing workplace is to help employees use capacity that is released.  That capacity can be used to transition employees from the domains most susceptible to automation, the simple and complicated, to working in those where human contributions are most valuable.

“Less talk, more action” is what we expect of machines. As we see our world of work move into networks and more complex domains, leaders must remember the value and human potential in communication. 

Perhaps we should choose to lead with “More Action and More Talk”.