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The Complexity Conundrum

Optimize Blog - April 17, 2017 - 0 comments

Charles Dickens in the 1830’s wrote that he lived in an age of “unrelenting change and unpredictability” so we wonder what he would make of our current situation where complexity is one of the hallmarks of the 21st century. It’s evident not only in business, but in every facet of the globalized world in which we live. Countries, economies, and people are more interconnected than at any time in history and these connections are proliferating at a faster pace than ever.
In our daily lives the advance of technology and the demands on our time and the opportunities presented require significant discipline to just make it from one month to the next. The barrage of multi-media confronting us every minute has our brains working ever harder to keep up.
Interestingly there are physical limitations and ramifications that we need to deal with here. Our brain has an almost incomprehensible amount of data that it needs to process – those trillions of cells are being asked to work ever harder with telephone, email, cell phone and a constant stream of decisions that need to be made. The frontal lobes of our brain are the areas where this decision making takes place and as long as they stay in control and can process all this data effectively then we are able to function appropriately.
Yet just below our frontal lobes lurks the area of the brain concerned with survival. These areas govern our primitive functions – sleep, hunger, breathing, heart rate and so on. When our frontal lobes are coping with the data presented these areas send positive messages – excitement, motivation, satisfaction. However, upon your fifth interruption, 10th phone call or umpteenth search for some missing information your brain begins to panic and these areas below your frontal lobes start to send a different type of message.
In primitive terms these areas may as well assume that you are being stalked by some ferocious predator – it determines your inability to process the data as fear – hence the rapid transition to survival mode. Now, if you were being hunted by a predator, survival mode is exactly what you want but in our working life where the job is becoming a little overwhelming you could do with some clarity of thought to handle the complexity. But those frontal lobes are trained not to ignore the panic signals and your brain starts to lose its ability to think clearly.
As leaders, managing complexity is very much a critical role that we need to perform. It’s about building the capacity, in yourself, your people, and the organization to adapt continuously and learn speedily, in order to maximize the chances of seizing fleeting opportunities. Organizational learning and improvisation are good management practices in and of themselves, but in the face of complexity, learning and improvisation are paramount in dealing with the ambiguity, diversity, interconnectedness and flux of the modern business environment.
To help your frontal lobes stay in control, in complex environments, you need to have the fortitude not only to tolerate but to thrive when balancing on the edge of stability and instability, where improvisation and experimentation provide the best chances of success.
It is not easy, however, to maintain this balancing act. In times of crisis, the natural tendency is for people to fall back on their proven expertise and routines. Don’t fall into this trap – practice hard and learn to function well where complexity, learning and innovation converge with execution, bringing practice and performance together to deliver the desired results……

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