When Complexity Makes It All Go Wrong: Introduction

Whether it’s the disruption of global events or – closer to home – struggling relationships, waste, missed targets, and evaporating morale at every level – the symptoms of Complexity are all around us.

We don’t have to look far to see that things aren’t working as well as they need to.

However, it is instructive – and chastening – to look at particular crises or situations to see precisely what these symptoms look like:

  • Sometimes these situations simply reflect the direct impact of Complexity.
  • At least as often, though, these situations also reflect inappropriate and ineffective responses to that Complexity
  • In all cases, there are consequences.

The situations we have chosen to illustrate this represent different geographies (albeit with a UK focus, given that that’s where we’re based and most able to review and interpret media coverage) and they cover a mix of private and public sector, different industries, things that were planned and things that “just happened”.

The consequences in these situations were often extreme and serious – even fatal – and it should be stressed that most Complexity-driven situations (and most of the inappropriate responses made) will never escalate this far.

However, in each of these situations, multiple stakeholders and factors were involved, the dangers of complacency become clear and nobody would ever have anticipated the eventual consequences.

And so these situations all contain key things we can all relate to:

  • The Grenfell Tower Fire tragedy of June 2017, which involved a disastrous intersection of a complex situation and a fatally flawed response to it.
  • Crossrail, the biggest infrastructure project in Europe – planned for years, but now already running 2 years late and £millions over budget…
  • …and its “cousin” project, HS2, where problems abounded even before the hugely-delayed main work begun, and have only multiplied since.
  • The 2017 London Bridge attack, where Islamist terrorists targeted random members of the public and where the subsequent response of the emergency services was compromised.
  • Two related aviation disasters involving the Boeing 737 MAX aeroplane, where Boeing and its regulatory body, the FAA, have both been placed under scrutiny. 

Further to the Crossrail and HS2 examples, you can also read further about other high profile failures with centrally-controlled projects and programmes in the public sector:

  • A British Army recruitment drive, where a website that was three times over budget and 52 months (BBC). 
  • The cancellation of the ambitious National Programme for IT in the NHS (NAO).
  • The Post Office Horizon IT system fiasco, where staff were wrongly accused of fraud due to errors with the system (BBC), leading to ruined lives and huge compensation payouts, and where the system remained faulty (BBC).

And if you’re still not convinced – or want even more examples – you can see symptoms of all this in the following, too: