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Giving Complexity a Bear Hug

16 Jun 2020 8:00 AM | Jennifer Miller (Administrator)

Organizational complexity is as present as ever. Business leaders have been slapped into realization of complexity yet again during Pandemic Time. The deep throws of 2020 have heightened awareness that complexity extends beyond the organization, its people and product mix, to how the quickly the realities of economic, societal and political forces can explode the best-laid plans. 

Expertise in managing complexity with a business leader in moments like these does not come from knowing stuff and writing prescriptions. It comes from a capacity to plunge into not knowing alongside those who also do not know and yet bear responsibility for any outcomes. The ability to form a process and learn beside leaders as they make adaptive moves is the true and needed skill.

In the September 2011 issue of Harvard Business Review Gőkçe Sargut and Rita Gunther McGrath wrote a masterful article called Learning to live with complexity (pp. 69-76). Here are the distilled key points:

  • Numerous, independent parts that endlessly interact with one another make for a complexity beyond any one person’s knowledge, expertise or capacity to predict.
  • Few leaders or constituents acknowledge these limits, convinced that simple and accustomed patterns are what should work.
  • Inside complexity, the rarely occurring and unexpected event can outweigh the significance of the intended and regular result.

Direction Sign

No organizational type is an exception. Leaders everywhere are in the deep end of a murky pool. What to do? The authors suggest a greater effort to forecast, to mitigate risks and to make sure the bandwidth of leadership perspective increases. This is where a process consultant can be helpful. Here is one example of each:

  • Forecast: Manage according to expected income with best, likely and worst-case scenarios (conservative estimates please).  This approach is widely known and seldom practiced with real rather than manipulated or out-of-date data.  How this gets done is specific to the context of any one organization. It cannot just be copied and pasted from another elsewhere. It has to be figured out before it can be used.
  • Mitigate Risks:  Establish a cash reserve with an expected percentage of savings. This populates the balance sheet. Strong balance sheets are what see organizations through unexpected complexity. The intended direction of a balance sheet should be considered a best practice for strategic and planning conversations. The question, “how will this affect our balance sheet” is not only a critical one. The one who asks it, persistently, brings wisdom to the board room.
  • Increase Bandwidth: Float ideas and seek perspective informally before launching initiatives. These conversations inform what the initiative becomes. In the rush to launch and show how competent they are, business leaders often hear helpful perspective after the initiative is launched. However, by then is it criticism rather than a helpful suggestion. The humility to ask ahead of time makes the difference. Process consultants can help set the timing and safety of these conversations.

We can be stopped and stalled by complexity or we can learn to embrace it. The process consultant is more helpful if they assume complexity and the need to joyfully learn alongside a client.  If the consultant shifts away from process orientation toward a product orientation – moving from being a non-anxious presence to someone anxiously needing to make a sale – they miss the point. The client is better served if the consultant spends more time trying to adapt their previous knowledge base to a new and more complex reality.

-mark l vincent

Dr. Mark L. Vincent is the founder of the Society for Process Consulting and former CEO of Design Group International. Mark is also the instructor of the foundational Process Consultant Training 101, which starts a new cohort 10 July 2020.

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