Making sense of complexity. Read more Read less

The relentless pace of change, both internal to our organisations and ongoing worldwide uncertainty, means that many managers feel they are facing more complexity than ever before. We take a qualitative, ‘lived experience’, approach to understand complexity (specifically in projects, although it is more broadly applicable), to understand different manifestations of complexity and the mechanisms managers use to respond to them.

Key Facts

    Our research has identified three sorts of complexity. This gives a clear way of distinguishing different forms of challenge:

    • Structural complexity: increases with the number of people involved, financial scale, number of interdependencies, variety of work, pace, breadth of scope, number of specialist disciplines involved, and number of locations and time-zones.

    • Socio-political complexity: increases with the divergence of people involved, level of politics or power-play, lack of stakeholder / sponsor commitment, degree of resistance to work being undertaken, hidden agendas, and conflicting priorities of stakeholders.

    • Emergent complexity: increases with work novelty, lack of technological and commercial maturity, lack of clarity of vision / goals, lack of clear success criteria / benefits, lack of previous experience, and any changes imposed on or by the work.


Impact of our research

Through our research we have developed the Complexity Assessment Tool (CAT) which is a structured way for managers and their teams to identify particular complexities in their work. We advocate using this as a means of discussion so that teams can work towards practical solutions. We have found, perhaps surprisingly, that over 80% of problems raised can in fact be solved or alleviated. Many complexities are ‘self-inflicted’ within organisations, and through openly raising the issues, solutions can be identified and implemented.

Why the research was commissioned

This is an ongoing stream of research at Cranfield. We are investigating the nature of, and rationale for, particular managerial responses to understand this subject better. We have used the techniques (including the CAT) with thousands of managers in the UK and abroad and the feedback is that these are valuable tools and ways of thinking.

How to use the tool

We present an abbreviated version of the CAT in the attached file. The example questions regarding structural and socio-political complexity are designed to provoke debate among team members, and often individuals disagree. What may be important for one person may not worry others, but an open discussion and the sharing of concerns can be enlightening and important. The Yes/No about each point can best be interpreted as ‘does this worry you?’ and is necessarily subjective. Emergent complexity (on the right hand side) can be understood in terms of the expectations for stability of the other two over a suitable time period (for example, 3 months, or the next project phase). Low levels of expected stability are common, few projects proceed exactly as initially planned, yet this reality is often not acknowledged. This tool begins that conversation so team members can share their concerns of issues that may not make it onto a traditional risk register. This starting point allows possible solution options to be discussed. We note that some complexities can indeed be solved, some can be alleviated, and some you just have to ‘live with’. Even with these insoluble challenges, a shared awareness of their nature can limit unexpected surprises, which is beneficial.