Why Haven't Managers Embraced Complexity

Adaptive Action Bridge

In a recent post on the Harvard Business Review blog,  Why Haven't Managers Embraced Complexity,  Richard Straub  looks at what managers face as they recognize that management practices from past decades don't really fit today's challenges. Even the term "management" may be undergoing a shift - notice that the post is not about "managing" complexity. Straub sites a management desire for control that is not really possible, and this is amplified in at least one commenter's note ( John Forrest ):

One of the reasons managers haven't embraced complexity is because it undermines the premise of environmental control which most management theory embraces. It takes a mature manager to think of themselves as at best an influencer on a system and not a controller.

Managers work in systems designed to reward results, but complex environments make those specific achievements exceedingly difficult.  

Commenter Ton Joerg  suggests :

The goal should not be to be in control, or to predict the future, but to master the very dynamics of complexity, being very much part of the complex processes taking place in our complex world. Mastering complexity is an ever-evolving process to be dealt with by smart people. It is time to stop the “wishing it away” mentality and to recognize the real complexity which is involved in the ‘problem of complexity’ for organizations. The real challenge for organizations is to view the system with new eyes, with a complexity lens, so to become able to organize complexity inside the organization for the mastering of complexity outside the organization. To do so, you need to recognize the complexity of knowing, of learning, of thinking and of innovation, in their full interdependencies. You need to think in complexity to deal with complexity.

Straub concludes his post with what is needed going forward:

Managers, I think, should now get ready to face the full complexity of their organizations and economic environments and, if not control them, learn how to intervene with deliberate, positive effect. Embracing complexity will not make their jobs easier, but it is a recognition of reality, and an idea whose time has come.

There are many thoughtful responses to Straub's post, including Glenda's, shared below:

Thanks so much for sparking this fascinating conversation. I agree that complexity thinking hasn't progressed as we expected it to over the past 25 years. Still, scholars and practitioners of management have both evolved in their ability to cope with complexity.  

No manager is successful today unless he or she deals effectively with open, high dimension, nonlinear systems dynamics. Every critical management decision is made in the midst of complex dynamics at multiple scales. The problem is that they had no adequate theory or language to represent their useful intuitions. 

Scholars and pundits have also found some success exploring various models and methods to capture the intricacies of complexity. Comments here capture many of those promising paths. 

The problem, as I see it, is that the emerging theory was disconnected from the emerging practice. Each one progressed in a veritable vacuum.  Theoretical work dove deeper and deeper into complicated models and self-referential language. Applications focued on description rather than explanation. They skated over the substance of nonlinear dynamics and made superficial connections between complexity metaphors and patterns in real life. I have no doubt that my own theory and practice fell into both these pits at one time or another.   

About ten years ago, we began to explore the praxis of complexity. We held tight to the world view of open, high dimension, nonlinear systems and to the rigors of day-to-day wise action.  We called the emerging field of research and practice human systems dynamics. Our new book Adaptive Action: Leveraging Uncertainty in Your Organization (Stanford University Press, 2013) lays out principles and practices, models and methods that we believe bring the essence of complexity into the urgency of management practice.
And, we do not pretend to have an answer. The very soul of our work is inquiry because we believe it is the only choice when control and predictability aren't possible. You even need inquiry to determine when control and predictability are possible, so you can make the most of any situation. We call the center of our inquiry Adaptive Action, and it includes three questions:  What?  So what?  Now what? As you can imagine, every now what leads to a next what. It is in these iterated questions, at the intersection of theory and practice, that complexity management becomes real. To quote a recent review of the book, "Anyone can do Adaptive Action, and everyone needs to."   

Thanks for continuing this complex journey of inquiry and action.  I'm delighted to see where this emerging journey leads all of us.    

How are you embracing complexity? What help do you need with your own inquiry and action?

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