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July 20, 2012

How to deal with organizational complexity

Posted by Manish Srivastava (View Profile | View All Posts) at 6:01 AM

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I take the conversation onward from my previous blog "Simplify or have an egg on your face" that you can read  here .The next obvious question before us is - How does an organization deal with complexity - at the strategic, operational and individual levels?

At a strategic level, organizations can reduce complexity by focussing on a few things and then complementing this with key partnerships and a strong ecosystem. So, focus on a few eggs and get your friends to catch the others. Knowing what customers want, how the domain is evolving and what the organization is good at is key to identifying which eggs to catch. And more importantly, which to leave alone. Eventually, how all this comes together at the point of delivery and how clients experience it, matters.  Today, a lot of information is available but must be assimilated to understand changing needs and market conditions. That's why organizations need to invest into capabilities like analytics, simulation and modeling that can help them make sense of this information. This allows them to deliver the right products and services to customers.

In most organizations there is a lot of incentive to do more - new products, new features, new processes, new systems. There is very little incentive to eliminate what's no longer needed. This leads to accumulation of  operational complexity. Eventually, it gets to a point where it is beyond organizational capability to manage it. A fear of change sets in because changing or adding anything new causes the system to break somewhere else.  The creation of "new" must be balanced with the elimination of "old" to keep complexity in check. This means zooming into details and figuring out what's no longer useful. Maintenance must go beyond reactive support and preventive upkeep to proactive elimination of unwanted complexity - to create room for the "new". On the other hand, there is also a need to zoom out and take a more holistic view of things. Coordination across traditional departmental boundaries for instance. Often, this requires the organization to change what it measures as performance and develop a "culture of collaboration". Inability to resolve cross-departmental issues causes focus to shift away from the customer. Much like one is unable to concentrate on anything when one has a headache.

At an individual level, we experience complexity as "more systems to deal with" or "more time to get the same things done" and this leads to stress and disengagement. To deal with this, systems need to be designed to empower users for self service rather than wait in physical or digital queues. Multi-modal experiences, multi-channel availability, single point but simplified navigation and such like become important.

Einstein once said "Make things simple as possible, but not simpler." So, while on the one hand, things should be made simpler, at the same time, there is a need to accelerate learning - to raise the individual's ability and the organizational capability to deal with complexity. Traditional "one size fits all" classroom-based models need to be augmented with "personalized in place" learning. Work and workplaces  will need to be redesigned to enable people to learn and work in distributed, diverse teams. On our own part, we will need to learn to connect and share proactively and purposefully to create more meaningful experiences for ourselves, people around us and our clients. While most executives are aware that there is need to manage complexity, it continues to be on the back burner until a catastrophic failure occurs.

The challenge is to identify early indicators that point to the problem and are also easy to measure. A simple possible early indicator of rising organizational complexity could be a sudden change in any of the following:   
1. Number of change requests or good ideas waiting for resources
2. Number of exceptions
3. Ratio of build vs test effort. (doing vs compliance)
4. Number of people who join a review call
5. Number of e-mails
6. Amount of travel 
7. Number of people on leave
8. Number of clicks before one gets to the actual functionality
9. Number of "How to do this?" support requests

Can you think of more?

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