Doug Garnett’s Blog


Complexity in Business: No Simple Diagram Suffices When Complexity Affects Business

<strong>Complexity in Business:</strong>  No Simple Diagram Suffices When Complexity Affects Business

Decades of consultant programs and textbooks have trained those of us in business to assume that anything worth learning can be summarized in simplistic charts. Mostly, they have done this because it’s easier to sell consulting services and books using charts and, after all, too many businesses adopt these things because they’re popular not because they matter.

Constant promotion of simplified charts for business has created a disaster. Many (most) important things cannot be summarized effectively in simplistic charts but require savvy thinking about the specific business in front of us. Still, the demand for four quadrant charts (or similar) has narrowed views of how business works so much that we are offered only mere shadows of the truth of “doing business.”

Enter Complexity

Writing my book about complexity and business I find that avoiding these images helps better capture the truth and reality of complexity. The metaphors of business which we discover in complexity are far too meaningful and rich to become dashboards, metrics, or diagrams (like Silicon Valley’s fictional “conjoined triangles of success”).

Complexity lives and thrives outside diagrams. It is a wild and untamed force which might affect business at any point and is known to always be at work in key business phases (like developing new products and bringing them to market). That it is wild and untamed is important and good. Complexity will not thrive in captivity.

Certainly the forces which emerge through complex behavior sometimes bring storms of destruction. At other times, though, they bring discovery that builds superb long term profits. And, most of the time, they bring a combination of both — where to succeed a business must sort out how to ride these forces in a way which minimizes the destruction and takes advantage of opportunities they bring.

Complexity is Part of Life

We all develop the ability to work with complexity simply by living our lives. Sadly, at the door of our businesses, we are somehow asked to put that experience in a locker where we can gather it to take with us at the end of the day.

Yet complexity is a fluid which surrounds us throughout our lives from childhood through our aging. From time to time, out of that fluid we encounter things which are no longer so complex. We need to grab those and hold them close — to rely on them for the stability they offer life. Without them we could not survive yet they also ebb and flow.

Just so, as we grow up we all grasp points of stability which ebb and flow — coming in, and out, of our lives in a natural pattern. We grab and hold close these stability factors and trust in their longevity. Yet we also learn that they will not be our rock of ages — we learn to adapt as they also adapt. As we grow we also become prepared to deal with and encounter more complex behaviors of our life. So we leave the home and enter the wild waves of developing a future, finding productive work, seeking a mate, building up financial reserves, obtaining whatever education is important for our lives, having a family, and much more.

Each of these we grab for the stability. Yet even a marriage which lasts a lifetime ebbs and flows from times of tremendous satisfaction and clarity to times with more confusion and tension. We become used to these patterns and, hopefully, come to value our ability to thrive even as things we count as stable at one point fade and we come face to face with the complexity surrounding us.

Raising kids we encounter this ebb and flow. When our kids are infants, they bring a chaos to life which is also quite stable. Then, they learn to walk and introduce us to a long period where we must worry about where they are. Through childhood some more stability builds and eventually we become comfortable not worrying where they are in our home or yard every instant. Eventually, though, they reach later schooling years and build independence which leads us, once again, to worry about where they are.

As humans, we live quite successfully through this change (whether we feel successful or not). It appears to be easier for some than for others — but overall I’d say the human race is quite skilled at dealing with complexity in life. And we learn a key approach to management — relying on that which is stable while accepting (often grumpily) that it also will change. It may even be that we ignore complexity in our conscious mind by focusing only on that which is stable at that point in time. Yet our instincts remain aware of the ubiquitous fluid of complexity within which we live.

Bringing the Metaphor to Business

Similarly, in business we also work surrounded by the fluid of complexity. From time to time, various types of solidity appear from that fluid which we similarly grab and hold close. Yet we need to take care. ONLY some solidity — always with a limited shelf life — can be simplified into the charts which consultants, authors, coaches, managers, and CEOs love.

While the charts may capture a solidity which emerged from complexity, holding them too tight leads the solidity to become rigid and brittle — unable to survive the fluid forces of complexity. Too often, these simplified ideas about business fail to survive the company meeting where they are revealed. When they do work, they may work for 3 to 7 years — each situation is different. What we must accept is that when they cannot last longer any attempt to hold them beyond their value leads to failure and no longer to success

To thrive with complexity we must reject the charts and engage with doing business. We have far better instincts for thriving amid complexity than many would ever acknowledge. Sadly, executives sometimes attempt to cleanse us of these instincts — attempting to impose their will by turning employees into automatons. At times like these employees who recognize complexity and anticipate the next important things in the company — things which do not appear on the charts — may be punished with poor performance reviews or other attempts to “force them into line.”

Managerialism and the Misdirection of Near Term Profit

In the 1950s, efforts which started far earlier (e.g. Taylorism) came together into an approach to business which has been labeled “managerialism.” It was fueled by many factors — including the newer disciplines of management by metrics which emerged from the US department of defense and World War II. The idea behind managerialism was that planning and control in business always produces the best results. Unfortunately, that idea is flawed — but few stop to see the problems with it.

The problem is a subtle one — as we are distracted by one key reality:  Near term profit, while it can be made, is often best pursued through the approaches of the managerial. Managerialism’s ability to manage that which is well behaved is excellent. Managerialism fails, though, when we turn to the need for innovation or for discovering and developing the the products and services which create a base for future profit. Managerialism also fails to survive the decay which will always affect existing profits.

Unfortunately, the connection between charts and managerialism’s success during times of profit blinds managers to limitations when things are no longer so well behaved. While managerialism has become its own “best practice” it is NOT a best practice when we face complexity.

Doing Business Amid Complexity

Business swims in a fluid of complexity. Sometimes solidity emerges within that fluid which can be managed for years with managerialism. The complex never goes away and when we need to thrive amid the complex, the same managerial skills which maximize profit will fail us as we attempt to create a next success or manage our company through the natural, and expected, decay of profits. Once again, complexity is not a tame discipline. It is the fluid of life and business — the ether which surrounds us as we do business — and must be dealt with simply by engaging with what is in front of us.

Success with complexity requires both instincts and skills which are unique in business and which can be nurtured. And, when we learn about complexity we also learn to honor those periods (brief or long) when we CAN rely on the complicated or simple things which can be summarized in charts — they give us respite from the far more stressful and exciting challenge of engaging with complexity. Yet we must also reject any idea that business succeeds with these simplified ideas.

Business succeeds most when it engages the complex while relying on simplistically chartable activities only when they are valid. Business will NOT work the other way around — relying first, and foremost, on the charts — not matter how much you pay a consultant to tell you it does.

©2021 Doug Garnett — All Rights Reserved

Through my company, Protonik LLC, I consult with companies as they design and bring to market new and innovative products. I am currently writing a book exploring the value of complexity science for understanding business. Protonik also produces marketing materials including documentaries, websites, and blogs. As an adjunct instructor at Portland State University I teach marketing, consumer behavior, and advertising.

You can read more about these services and my unusual background (math, aerospace, supercomputers, consumer goods & national TV ads) at 

Categories:   Business and Strategy, Complexity in Business