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Complexity, Chaos and Confusion

Optimize Blog - May 1, 2012 - 1 comment

You are sitting at your desk and yet another email notification pops up in the corner of the screen, you have a meeting in 20 minutes and you suddenly feel as if you’re swimming in a sea of impenetrable data, and you’re beginning to sink.
Welcome to the 21st century workplace… are under siege.
According to Dr Lynda Shaw you are not alone. Dr Shaw is a neuroscience and psychology lecturer at Brunel University. “I’ve been interviewing a lot of senior business people lately, and they’re actually hiding… because they’re frightened they’re going to be asked questions they can’t answer, so they’re delaying making really quite important decisions,” she says.
“When we feel overwhelmed we start to delay making decisions.” Dr Shaw says this is a symptom of the computer age. “We’ve really seen this incredible amount of information flooding us constantly. The problem with information overload is really new to the human brain.”
Staggeringly the rate at which we are bombarded with data on a daily basis is increasing exponentially and according to Cisco’s Visual Networking Index, average global IP traffic in 2015 will reach 245 terabytes per second, equivalent to 200m people streaming an HD movie at the same time every day.
Within the next three years, there will be nearly 15bn network connections via devices and nearly 3bn internet users, which constitute more than 40% of the world’s population.
So our world is full of mind numbing complexity and this resonates most with us in terms of modern leadership ability. The modern leader needs to deal with complexity on a daily basis.
Leaders that can adapt to their surroundings will survive and indeed thrive. An inability to adapt, to bring clarity to complexity or agility to ambiguity will see the individual struggle and an ineffective leader, without exception, creates an ineffective team.
Complexity tends to generate stress, confusion and other negative emotions. Fragmentation is one way people attempt to handle complexity. They try to master the situation by sealing off a part from the whole. Unfortunately, in complex situations all parts are interrelated and cannot meaningfully be isolated. Persistently concentrating on a part of the situation only heightens the negative emotions.  Another response to complexity is control, but complexity doesn’t let itself be so easily controlled.
The most senior roles deal with complex market or industry dynamics, possibly a global scope and extended timeframes. They place heavy demands on managers’ ability to handle strategic, complex and ambiguous issues. This is not just about ‘intellectual horsepower’ or ‘IQ’. Some leaders can score highly on standard reasoning tests yet still have difficulty in handling complex or strategic issues. This becomes further complicated when mapped against a backdrop of accelerating change in terms of technology and the competitive environment.
Better leaders manage complexity on behalf of their organizations by simplifying operations and increasing dexterity to change the way they work.
Leaders have two possibilities – they can simplify complexity and they can capitalize on complexity. Simplifying complexity is a coping mechanism to bring order and control to the situation and thereby reducing anxiety. Capitalizing on complexity on the other hand involves creative leadership by for instance inviting disruptive innovation, encourage others to drop outdated approaches, and to take balanced risks.
In short, capitalizing on complexity involves taking on the challenges and opportunities complexity presents. So view complexity as an opportunity rather than approach it with a siege mentality.

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