I love this quote from Yves Morieux and Peter Tollman in "Six Simple Rules: How to Manage Complexity Without Getting Complicated" (Harvard Business Review Press): “Increasingly, the winners in today’s business environment are those companies that know how to leverage complexity and exploit it to create competitive advantage.”
But the big question is, how do you leverage complexity?
Harvard Business Review recently published a perspectives article called "Leading Now: Critical Capabilities for a Complex World"* where the authors outline eight key capabilities to build in your leaders to capture the opportunities found in the increasingly complex world. HR and OD professionals who seek to help leaders leverage this complexity should focus on the following areas:
- Develop leaders’ problem-solving skills so they can make better decisions in the midst of ever-changing conditions.
- Encourage systems thinking: teach leaders how to scan the environment for change indicators and assess the potential impact of environmental changes on the organization.
Managing Global Business
- Ensure leaders know what’s happening in the markets where the business operates—the competitors, the economy, the customers, the politics, etc.
- Provide leaders in emerging markets with accelerated development.
- Train leaders to view strategy as a continuous process.
- Push strategy formulation down to involve mid-level leaders, including them in the process and implementation and building their skills through mentoring and training.
- Focus leaders on encouraging breakthrough innovations by making innovation a priority and providing structure to make it happen (e.g., regular forums for collaboration with internal and external parties).
- Encourage leaders to view networks as a method for fostering collaboration and to expand networks to include customers, partners, supplies, and competitors.
- Empower leaders to inspire engagement by helping them learn how to connect employees’ values and aspirations to the organization’s values and meaningful work opportunities.
- Ensure leaders are meeting one-on-one with their employees and having regular development conversations.
Developing Personal Adaptability
- Challenge leaders to eradicate the “we’ve always done it this way” mantra and pursue new approaches.
Cultivating Learning Agility
- Encourage leaders to regularly seek new opportunities and experiences to learn.
So, what’s the answer? How do you leverage complexity?
It starts with investing in your leaders and building their capabilities. But this isn’t about a one-time event to build static skills. We need to make our leadership development dynamic and ongoing—with reinforcement and support to help leaders continue adapting to meet the challenges coming their way.
The message that stands out to me is that leveraging complexity is not about trying to make the complex simple—to explain it, analyze it, or break it down. It’s about encouraging your leaders to enter the uncertainty, face complexity head-on, and see it as an open door to learning, innovation, and growth.