Manageable Articles

Thought-provoking perspectives on organisations.

How well are you harnessing complexity?

Now more than ever, firms need agility to navigate challenges. Tim Sullivan, former editorial director of Harvard Business Review Press, talks about complex adaptive systems, which are characterised by the relationship between heterogeneous agents making decisions, interaction between these agents, and the emergence of a global system. Organisations are examples of this.

Our ability to link cause and effect means that when something happens in a complex system, our minds create a narrative to explain it. We tend to think that certain causes lead to particular events, but this is a bias based on potentially little evidence - it is impossible for us to really know. We also have a reluctance to share private information, leading us to aggregate information poorly. Tim advocates for cognitive diversity in teams, which includes the way people think, their training, their experience and their personalities. A cognitively diverse group intentionally has different points of view that challenge the consensus. Leaders have a responsibility to ensure that diverse voices are heard.

Our problem-solving skills improve when there is a high level of intellectual curiosity and a combination of different skills and experiences; this requires conscious effort, since our instinct is to spend time with people similar to us. Make sure you see contrasting points of view, which can include reading widely, speaking to interesting people, and familiarising yourself with novel ideas.

CEOs from the Manageable Conversations podcast offer insights that can further help us in taking advantage of complexity. Nabila Salem, CEO of Revolent Group, says: “Don’t stay in your box, always put your hand up to take on extra responsibilities, take on new challenges.”

Graham Cooke, author and founder of Coveo Qubit. discusses who succeeds when major changes are happening: “You’re exposed in terms of whether you can manage this seismic shift, can you actually live up to the true leadership qualities of understanding what motivates people, how to drive purpose, effective communication. Are you delivering on those skills? Or are you a drill sergeant that expects everybody in the office to follow your orders?”

Good leaders also give their people the authority and the autonomy to make decisions, and to make mistakes. Ezechi Britton, CEO of the Centre for Finance, Innovation and Technology (CFIT), talks about the importance of supporting this: “Be there ready to catch them when they make those mistakes so that they can continue to have that bravery to step forward and make decisions.”

Managers need to allow people the flexibility to trust their intuition and decide on what they think is the best course of action, with the knowledge that failure is an important part of transformative change.

To hear more, tune into Manageable Conversations on Apple Music and Spotify.