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.