Complexity as an Advantage in Workplace Strategy

Brady Mick investigates how businesses can recognize the significance of the science behind complexity and use it to create the customized environments that are essential for today’s work.

Photo by Michael Robinson.
Photo by Michael Robinson.

Tension between the realities of work and current workplace strategies is taking a toll on business. With increasing work complexity at odds with a decades old approach toward efficiently simplifying business operations, managers struggle to get the most out their people. Lacking the dynamic environment necessary to complete more collaborative work, frustrated workers disengage. As a result, creativity suffers and innovation slows to a snail’s pace.

The challenges businesses face can no longer be solved with a one-size-fits-all approach to workplace strategy. Letting go of the fear of complexity is an essential first step. By recognizing the significance of the science of complexity, businesses can create more customized environments that are essential for today’s work and embrace the vision for future work behaviors.

The science of complexity

The traditional approach to business is to break down a body of work into component parts and apply specific expertise to solving the problem. Typically this is accomplished in a hierarchical fashion with managers setting objectives and employees delivering results. Business prefers order. “By definition, chaos is the enemy of organization. We’ve sat in meetings where a lack of defined processes has led to interminable wasted hours and negligible results….We tend to confront chaos as if it were an unruly beast—something to be contained as much as possible,” says Ori Brafman in his book, The Chaos Imperative: How Change and Disruption Increase Innovation, Effectiveness and Success. On the other hand, people appreciate diversity and purpose. In an environment that demands more collaborative efforts, the modern worker requires less structure and more autonomy, self-determination and the opportunity to develop strong relationships with co-workers in order to excel. Disconnect between what business prefers and what workers need is creating tension in the workplace. This is where an understanding of complexity science, or the scientific study of complex systems, can add value.

To more fully understand the benefits of complexity, look no further than nature. A prime example is the spider’s web. When a bug is caught in one part, the vibrations resound through the structure, allowing the spider to locate the prey quickly.

Complexity science addresses the system as a whole—not broken down into components. Adopting this holistic approach to creative value allows a business to transform a static work culture environment into a dynamic, idea rich culture.

The concepts of complexity

Five inherent ideas form the basis for understanding the concept of complexity:

  1. Dynamic. Always active and changing. The opposite of static environments where equilibrium exists.
  2. Self-organizing. Order is derived from disorder. The opposite of planned organization where order is defined.
  3. Revelatory. Revealing something over time through a series of events. The opposite of the establishment from the past, where conclusions have been solidified, frozen.
  4. Creative. Creating systems based on a complex array of connections where one engagement onto the system calls into play other divergent areas of the system to create results. The opposite of hierarchical where interaction is prescribed.
  5. Adaptive. Changeable to fit another purpose. Opposite of fixed, where the system has achieved equilibrium.
Photo by Ryan Kurtz.
Photo by Ryan Kurtz.

To more fully understand the benefits of complexity, look no further than nature. A prime example is the spider’s web. When a bug is caught in one part, the vibrations resound through the structure, allowing the spider to locate the prey quickly.

Complexity impacts business in much the same way by affecting human behaviors. This creates emergent results, often referred to as breakthrough ideation. “A little bit of chaos, encouraged but confined within borders, can be highly beneficial to an organization’s overall health,” says Brafman.

Consider the following scenario: Office workers arrive at work and discover that their place of business has been transformed overnight. Open spaces and mobile cabinets have replaced offices and personal desks. Initially, as the reality of the situation sits in, personalities come into play and emotions run high. Some people may feel the need to find their old managers and reestablish the status quo, while others may quit and go home. But eventually, underlying systems will start to form in the chaotic environment. Overtime, relationships between workers change, sparking fresh ideas that lead to new innovations.

Image courtesy of Dohn Studios.
Image courtesy of Dohn Studios.

Complexity as an advantage

By turning deficient thinking into creative thinking, businesses can embrace and take advantage of the benefits of complexity in a variety of ways. Some of these include:

  • Implement structural changes. Dramatically alter a space as a catalyst to setting new expectations and behaviors. For example, remove office doors and give people choices as to where they sit.
  • Create an environment that requires adaptation in order to function well for the work parameters. Invite divergence. Excite creative thinking. Display ideas.
  • Design areas for noise. Quiet can be as loud as noisy distraction. In designing space create areas that allow for buzz in addition to quieter areas for more focused work.
  • Eliminate meetings when possible. Too often meetings interfere with the organization of people coming together to create solutions to business problems. Meetings are becoming the bane of results.
  • Think creatively. Don’t begin with the end in mind. Instead, identify a challenge or opportunity and start developing meaningful and deep-seated questions to facilitate an understanding of the nature of the complex problem.
  • Fight against the instinct for predictability. Expand diversity, for it sustains itself regardless of the environment. Complexity creates moments of ambiguity, but value will emerge out of it.
  • Think Boolean rather than Euclidean. Create a work environment that is responsive to the evolution of complex systems. Avoid the traditional hierarchical system based on chain of command.
  • Allow for complexity from the workplace. Recognize that even the best work environment may not work for every business. Be open and encourage additionally activities, which overtime may provide a better model. Rethink space as dynamic and adaptable, not static.

Out of the comfort zone

When business is stuck in the comfort zone of setting and achieving goals, complexity in the workplace can appear to be a disadvantage. Yet, the true value of the workplace is not in its simplicity but in its ability to adapt. When every change and challenge is seen as an opportunity to succeed, complexity becomes a propellant instead of a fear that constantly slams on the breaks. Workplace strategies that accept and encourage complexity create environments that welcome emergent behaviors, which lead to unexpected results.

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