Complexity in business – and how to solve it, I guess

December 27th, 2011 § 1

It’s a new world. A little bit more than it always is, in fact. No one can have failed to notice that we live in precarious times, with economic crises and environmental threats making life – and in consequence, business – much more uncertain than in previous decades. Hard, however, would not be all that troublesome in the long run. Hard is graspable, solvable, manageable. You work hard to solve a hard problem, that’s conveniently understandable and, well, linear. This is the worrying part: the world is more complex and unpredictable.

For example, in a recent Harvard Business Review article, economists Gökçe Sargut and Rita Gunther McGrath claims that in the last thirty years, complexity has

[…] gone from something found mainly in large systems, such as cities, to something that affects almost everything we touch: the products we design, the jobs we do every day, and the organizations we oversee.
(Sargut & Gunther McGrath 2011: 70)

Complex does not, of course, just mean complicated. It involves the transition from chain to network, from separate to interconnected and interdependent systems. Business is then, to use the terminology of Karl Popper, not a clock anymore, it is a cloud.

It is apparent then, that the tried and trusted way of thinking about business does not work anymore. It is, essentially, broken. We need another way of approaching business problems, one that is more attuned to this complexity. Especially when we’re doing entrepreneurial things. (Yes, I know. Me too, I have a deep-rooted aversion towards the Entrepreneur with a capital E. Megalomaniac characters balancing between having great networking skills and sociopathy. Smug technophiles with the capacity for reflective thinking like that of a Giant Schnauzer. And so on. However. Contrary to popular belief, entrepreneurial ventures does not have to include this unsavoury figure.) Entrepreneurial in the sense of starting something, but also to reinvent or revolutionize an existing business – by for example launching new products, finding new markets, or changing organizational models. And it is in exactly this search for change, for revolution, that existing business models fail to perform in a world of uncertainty and intricacy. This is where another line of thinking is needed.

But what does work, then? What line of thinking can actually help navigating in an uncertain, fast, difficult world? A couple of years ago, design thinking claimed it was it. And I felt towards it in varying ways going through the same process I often do: (1) Infatuation (in this case fuelled by the efficient trick of the Common Enemy – taunting MBAs was very clever). (2) Followed by a growing sense of belonging to a club where less intelligent people sit around collecting buzz words as if they were stamps. (3) General hostility.

But, I’ve decided to be reasonable. I’m not convinced that a designer can come up with the solution to world starvation better than someone who actually knows something about it, simply by being seemingly magically creative. In fact, it is a bit too close to romanticism surrounding nature people. Another reason I’m not convinced is that I’ve been to design school, and every time we did a project that went farther than our actual field of competence, every idea we came up with was rather shitty.

But there are elements of design thinking that are better tools for dealing with clouds, rather than clocks. Better, that is, than the standard business school equipment.

Number one. Start using the whole of your brain.

That is, to approach business in the way that Roger Martin defines design thinking – as bringing together the best of analytic reasoning with the best of creative, emotional thinking.

Why this is needed to tackle complexity? Something the artist Dutch video artist Guido van der Werve told about what he has learnt from chess Grandmaster Leonid Yudasin might serve as an illustration. (I wrote about it once before.) The game of chess is, according to Yudasin, too complicated for a Grandmaster to learn all strategies and possible outcomes with his rational mind. Instead, they train their aesthetic sensibility; they look for what feels and looks “right” to them.

This part of the brain copes with those complex and quite mathematical chess problems much better than the rational part, in the Grandmasters’ experience. Clearly something that suggests that all ways of thinking should be represented when trying to solve business problems.

Number two. Stop being so bloody linear.

Iteration, constantly refining and retuning your idea throughout the design process, is of course another  feature that separates design thinking from traditional business thinking. This seems even more fruitful as an approach when the world seems difficult to predict and complex. And it is in entrepreneurial undertakings like discovering new products and offerings that the unpredictability and complexity is the biggest challenge.

But surprisingly often, the traditional business process, that starts with planning and then goes on to execution and then has a little feedback arrow meekly attempting to make itself heard in the end, is taken for granted. It is, however, rather hopeless when everything changes constantly, and inconsistently. Dust yourself off and try again. Again and again.

At least, that’s worth a try.

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