Management is all about complexity

Management is defined as the process of dealing with, influencing, or directing things or people. From my point of view, there is no difference between management (of things and directing people) and leadership (influencing people). Both of them are parts of the same whole and during a working day, you are using both of them, based on scenarios. 

What still bothers me for a long time is the question of what management is from a practical point of view. What managers or leaders need to do on a daily basis to reach the loose definition above and run a successful business. I’m still noodling about the practicality of managements and what cause different managers with the same personalities to have different management styles. What I want to share in this post is what managers need to manage and why their work is far from being simple.  

Simple, complicated, and complex

During our life, we are dealing with simple, complicated (hard problems) and complex problems. Those definitions are important, as each one of those terms requires a different level of effort and approach. The best way to understand these three definitions and how they differ from each other is by using the analogy of landscape.

A landscape with one mountain with a clear peak (such as mount Kilimanjaro) is equivalent to a simple problem. Finding the peak is an easy solution. A mountain chain (such as the Rockies) with several peaks is a complicate (or hard) problem. There are many options and to find the peak, you need to get a broad view and use logic. If the peaks of the Rockies will change constantly and rapidly because of earth activities, we will have “dancing peaks”. Dancing peaks are the equivalents to a complex problem. Complex problems have dependencies between moving parts that create unexpected behavior.

Systems and complex systems

A system is a collection of connected parts that are working to reach a common goal. Organizations are systems, but organizations are also complex systems. Complex systems are systems composed of autonomous, interlinked, and diverse parts. The autonomy, diversity, and interlink create problems that are the same as the dancing peaks. Hence, any organization (including companies) are complex systems. 
Let’s take it one step further. If parts that compose a system are autonomous, diverse, interlinked and they are learning; we categorize this system as a complex adaptive system. Organizations are complex adaptive systems (even if you think no one is learning in your company) 

Why is it important? Managers need to deal with complex systems. It means that they need to understand the complexity and find ways how an organization should deal with complexity. This is not a simple task and as you will read in the next paragraph, it’s even more complex as a company is a set of other complex subsystems.
How many complex systems create one organization.

Companies and management

Companies are probably one of the most complex systems that we need to deal with. A company is a human-made structure on top of the natural evolutionary structure (a group of people). Therefore, each company is composed of at least two complex systems. There are three main complex subsystems that are part of the Human-made complex system. Business, Company (people, groups), Work (Projects and tasks).

Business – The company is operating in a business environment with competitors, clients, and suppliers (each one of them a complex system by itself). The company needs to be on top of the competition by providing better services/products and decreasing costs. The business of each company is a dedicated sub-system with a goal that interlinks to the other sub-systems. The business subsystem is the main focus of management. 

Company – Any organization is a collection of people and groups of people. Organizations adopt different management theories to manage people and resources, organize groups and motivate people. This is a dedicated complex sub-system that requires a lot of time and attention. This subsystem can be the most complex system that people need to manage.

Work – Because of the interdependencies of organization parts most of the work that we need to perform has many tasks that depend on other tasks, performed by other people (within or outside of your group). A project is a set of autonomous, diverse, and interdependent tasks. Tasks are not learning; Therefore, projects are just complex systems and not complex adaptive systems. Learning will be part of the company sub-system. One way or another, work is another focus for management.

Management/Leadership need to take care of those three complex subsystems to run a successful company. Neglecting one of them will have a negative impact. Focusing too much on one of them will have a negative impact as well. Leadership/Management is also busy with finding the right balance between those three. All of that should be done under the assumption that the landscape can change at any point in time.

If you wonder what is the best way for managers to operate in a complex business environment, read our posts on Agile Management.

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