Complexity is hard. It’s hard to work with, it’s hard to be in, it’s just plain hard! But we make it harder on ourselves by adding complicatedness to the complexity.
At work, when we’re stuck on a problem or making a mess of things, try addressing complicatedness before addressing complexity. Get in the habit of asking: Do we have a mess or a mission?
A mess is when we aren’t sure what conversation we are having or what question we are answering.
A mission is when we are already clear about what it is that we are here to do.
- Which conversation are we having?
- How many conversations are there actually?
- Are we having the right conversation?
- Are we trying to answer more than one question?
- Do we need to answer more than one question?
- Are we answering the right question?
- Is everyone on the same page about that?
- Do we need to answer a different question?
- Do we need to answer a bigger question?
We don’t need to have the wording perfect, we just need to agree roughly that we’re all in the same ballpark in order to proceed. If it turns out we were mistaken there’s plenty of room to move later on. We just need to be pretty happy with the idea that we’re sufficiently on the same page: that we are talking about and working on the same thing (even if we’re unclear about how that will unfold).
Once we can pull apart these and set aside the complicatedness, then we can attend to what we hold. And what we hold may be simple, complicated, wicked or complex (or some of each). But if we try and tackle them all at once then we are adding unnecessary stress and frustration.
Deal with complicatedness before dealing with complexity.
In the industrial economy, when the production of ‘things’ in factories made up the bulk of our value creation work, the machine metaphor became the dominant frame for thinking about how we did work. People in the system were reduced to cogs in an almost literal sense, and when they broke (or rather, were broken,) they were changed out. And the damage was visible and quantifiable too: we sent people home with broken hands, backs and lungs.
The vast bulk of value creation is no longer found on the factory floor, but the machine metaphor is still the dominant frame for much of our thinking about how work is done. While people are not treated as literal cogs in the machine, the system of work (and a person’s contribution to it) is still viewed through the machine lens. As a result, we still break our people. But we no longer send them home with broken hands, backs and lungs, instead we send them home frustrated, disengaged, burnt out, stressed, and dispirited.
The machine and the metaphor have their place, but when they dominate our view of strategy, innovation and learning, when our thinking settles on repetition and refinement, when we only see our people as cogs in those machines (literal or metaphorical), richer capabilities in those same people are left aside.
For the challenges we face in our work today we need new capabilities and richer ways of working that allow for the machine and the metaphor, but in the right times and places.
For many decades (through to the 1960’s) rigid upright seating, often fixed to the desk itself, was part of the accepted environment of a good, disciplined education. “Sitting still” and “sitting up straight” were foundational to the mental models shared by teachers, parents and educational authorities when recognising a “good” classroom.
Many of the systems that “support” our modern ways of working and thinking are just as stilted. We are dis-abled by our own self-imposed models of what is good. If we could see the conceptual “furniture” that we use, we might well be horrified.
We have optimised for, rewarded, trained in and been attuned to certain (limited) ways of working.
We need free ourselves from the limited conceptual models that we have inherited. We need a new frame for working.
Installing in teams the ability to recognise, diagnose and design these ways of working is our unique expertise.
How many of our team members, do you suppose, drove to work this morning, thinking, “I will come to work today and be lousy at my job”?
When things go wrong in work teams it’s tempting to blame the individuals.
We look to psychology. We try to address individual misbehaviour; we work on personalities and attitudes.
But there is nothing wrong with our people.
We have good people, with good intent and adequate resources.
Rather than asking “why is this person a bastard?” we should ask “what have we done to make them that way?”
The issue isn’t with how people think or behave (psychology), the issue lies in how people interact (sociology).
Many problems appear to show up in the form of individual misbehaviour, but decades of work on the personalities and attitudes of our people (greater personal insight, personality profiling, task matching) hasn’t delivered much in the way of organisational improvement or leadership effectiveness.
The problem is that our work is so badly designed as to defeat the best efforts even of psychologically insightful individuals.
(Hat tip to Elliot Jacques: In Praise of Hierarchy)