THE BLOG
08/18/2010 09:29 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Are You in Cahoots With Complexity?

Cross-posted from Harvard Business Online .

Over the past few years, I've asked hundreds of managers the following two questions: Does the complexity of your organization make it more difficult to meet customers' needs? And does this complexity reduce your satisfaction with work? Not surprisingly, almost all managers answer with a resounding yes and then proceed to give me dozens of heartfelt examples of how complexity gets in the way.

Following this cathartic discussion, I then pose a third question: Do you feel that you are the cause of complexity in your organization? After a moment of stunned silence or embarrassed laughter, most managers confess that perhaps, occasionally, they create a little bit of complexity. But most of it, they say, comes from other departments or other managers.

Whatever the source, the reality is that no manager gets up in the morning and says, "Today I'm going to make it harder for my people to get things done." No one consciously and intentionally creates complexity. But unintentionally, and unconsciously, all managers are complexity creators. As the cartoon character Pogo once said, "We have met the enemy and he is us."

There are dozens of ways that managers cause complexity without even knowing it. Here's a quick example: The president of a large company with several business units and staff functions asked his CFO to put together a weekly, nonfinancial "activity report" so that he would be up-to-date on key developments or changes in each part of the company. To produce this report, the CFO asked each of the business heads and functional directors to give him a few highlights each week from their areas. Most of these people then asked their subordinates to do the same, so the request cascaded down through several levels. As the information came back up each week it had to be aggregated and summarized and before long a number of people in various parts of the organization were spending considerable time producing this report. The president of course was oblivious to the "information industry" that sprung up around the activity report, thinking that his request was simple and straightforward.

It's easy to blame the president for creating this complex process. But managers at all levels colluded with him to take a simple request and turn it into a time-consuming effort. For example, neither the CFO nor any of the president's direct reports asked their boss what he was really looking for, what level of detail was needed, and what constituted a "key development." In fact, they all felt that they needed to produce something each week, even if nothing much had changed. In addition, none of these business leaders felt that they could sketch out the highlights themselves without input from their teams, which led to the waterfall of data requests. And no one at the next levels pushed back either. So despite lots of quiet complaints about the process, it gradually took on a life of its own and embedded complexity into the organization.

Unfortunately this is not an unusual or exceptional case. Much of the complexity that we struggle with stems from these seemingly innocuous, innocent and well-intentioned requests -- which mushroom into invisible processes that take time and effort while adding only minimal value.

The challenge for all of us is to make these invisible sources of complexity more visible. To do this we first need to admit to ourselves that we are indeed complexity creators -- whether we initiate it directly or collude with others to perpetuate it. Look in the mirror and say to yourself, "My name is _______ and I create complexity." Then pull together a few colleagues or subordinates into a complexity-reduction support group to help you and your co-workers see these blind spots and do something about them.

What's your approach to combating complexity?