Coping with complexity

Smiling female student siting front open book and learning

We live in a complex world. Some commentators go further and call it a VUCA (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous) world. Choosing to champion Balanced Working for ourselves and our team can – ironically – add an extra layer of complexity to our working lives. At least at the outset.

How do we help ourselves and our teams to manage these complex environments?

Since the middle of the last century psychologists have come to understand that making decisions when we’re faced with too many choices becomes stressful. And – of course – our #AlwaysOn hyper-connected lifestyles are resulting in an overwhelm of information.

As an antidote, Stanford University Professor Kathleen Eisenhardt recommends setting three simple rules. Three rules are likely to be remembered and more likely to be put into action when people are stressed.

Simplicity is also the recommendation of author and speaker Greg McKeown. According to him becoming a great leader requires:

“the disciplined pursuit of less but better”

McKeown’s research has shown that teams and the people in them thrive with a high level of clarity of purpose. He stresses the importance of carving out the time and space needed to achieve that clarity.

A team that aims to achieve Balanced Working will need two layers of simple rules. The first must be around how to manage their more flexible working practices. The developers of ROWE (the Results-Only Work Environment) offer some guidance here with rules around the acceptable use of time during the day; around communication and around actually doing the work for which we’ve been hired.

Once those rules are in place the team can focus on simplifying work processes: developing the capacity to be more agile in response to the ever changing workplace environment.

Aiming for clarity and simplicity protects us against what Psychologists Irving Janis and Leon Mann call ‘hypervigilant behaviour’ – often exhibited when we attempt to make complex decisions under duress. The outcome is a never ending search for more information while we try and find the ideal solution.

A further benefit of simplicity – according to Professor Eisenhardt – is that collecting too much data results in using the past to predict the future. Our own experience of the rapid pace of change increasingly tells us this is unlikely to be the case. The future will be different.

Faced with this knowledge we must learn to let go of our desire to control that future. A recent McKinsey article advises leaders to develop:

“a more comfortable and creative relationship with uncertainty”

Psychologists consider organisations to be complex adaptive systems in constant tension between stability and change. Although it’s true we’ve had more and more of the latter in recent years. It’s this emergent change that often fuels our uncertainty. But if we are to adapt and to create better ways of working we must learn to embrace and manage it.