We all feel it at some point. Our worlds can reach an overwhelming level of complexity at home or work. Sometimes both.
At work, we’re frequently frustrated by too many competing demands on our time. Too many projects to juggle. Too many bureaucratic layers bogging projects down. Too much daily information to scan to stay on top of things. Too many so-called crises blowing up our weeks.
So how do organizational leaders deal with what sometimes seems like uncontrollable complexity?
Not long ago, I received an email from a client whose organization had been experiencing significant growth for the past several years. She had been extremely busy adding new services, staffing, contracts, and more management layers and processes to deliver a larger volume of services.
By all measures, the organization was thriving but this executive felt swamped by the growth and how complex things had become. The organization was moving in new directions and adding new pieces. As a leader, she became concerned that her company was losing site of its core purpose, sacrificing quality in services, and overloading staff along the way.
Well, with growth comes complexity, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, particularly if an organization continues to thrive.
But growth usually brings more moving parts to keep track of and more challenges around coordination, communications, and basic management.
The problems start when leaders don’t pay close enough attention to all the different work layers and processes that are getting added. The key question to ask is: do the additions make it easier or harder for employees to get work done?
When problems do emerge, the answer isn’t to just simplify. The focus should be on making the complex more manageable and keeping it at a tolerable level.
In its research, McKinsey and Company, an international consulting company, reports that effectively managing and containing complexity leads to lower organizational costs, increased employee satisfaction, and higher returns on investments.
Here are a few steps I suggest to clients and executives when they sense complexity is getting the better of them and their organizations.
- Involve as much of your staff as appropriate to manage and keep an eye on mounting complexity. The more organizational arms involved, the better.
- Take a hard look at what matters the most to your organization and establish a clear set of priorities.
- With clear priorities in mind, scan your organization’s operational structures and systems to flag, modify, or eliminate any processes that don’t carry value or make it more difficult for employees to get work done.
- Have clear roles, goals, and accountabilities around key job functions.
- Eliminate decision-making bottlenecks, particularly at the executive and managerial levels, and give staff more autonomy to do their jobs. This takes trust and a flexible leadership temperament.
- Collaborate/Integrate. Create an environment where employees can easily collaborate, particularly around complex tasks to lighten the load. Integrate functions where possible to work more efficiently.
- Consistently remind staff of the organizational priorities and progress made toward important goals.
- Keep track of how things are progressing, what’s working and what’s not. Be willing to adjust and adapt to keep the priorities moving forward. Be open to staff feedback.
- Appreciate. Change and growth can be both challenging and rewarding. Take time to celebrate milestones. Praise and reward key contributors and teams as appropriate.
I’ll be circling back to my client to check on how she’s handling the complexity in her organization and if she has started to feel less burdened.
It’s quite common for executives to be wading into deeper and more entangled levels of complexity without realizing it. The above recommendations can collectively safeguard against complexity getting the better of your organization.