Failed Approaches in Response to Complexity

The responses most organisations are making to the challenges of today’s commercial environment can be summarised as:

  1. Doubling-down – more of the same
  2. Short cuts – looking for quick fixes
  3. “Long” cuts – investments to pay off later

In many cases, organisations are adopting all three responses at the same time:


Doubling-down is where organisations do pretty much what they’ve always done, but they do more of it and/or do it more emphatically, e.g.:

  • Making contracts even more detailed and enforcing them even harder.
  • Implementing standards.
  • Delivering capability and/or behavioural training.
  • Developing KPIs and gathering more data
  • Restructuring roles and responsibilities.

Short cuts

Short cuts typically involve new technology (especially AI and Big Data), but could involve appointing a new CEO or getting in external consultancy, etc.

The common thread is looking for a quick fix that will “change the rules” – it may not be clear how, but improvement will “inevitably” follow.

“Long” cuts

“Long” cuts are where organisations put things in place in the promise or hope that they will pay off later – often in the form of big consultancy-led programmes, but also some of the approaches found when Doubling-down or looking for Short cuts.

Instant results may not be expected, but – as with Short cuts – improvement will inevitably follow… somehow… at some point.

However, as is already evident in most cases through the (lack of) results, these responses aren’t just sub-optimal: they actively make things worse and are doomed to fail.

Why? Because they fail to understand one or more (often all) of:

  • Complexity – how it accounts for and explains today’s intensifying challenges and guides how to respond to them effectively, rather than trying to control or sidestep them.
  • People – how to recognise and best support how they need to think, organise and work in this complex environment, and which people need to be on board to make change happen.
  • Value – how it is primarily subjective (going far beyond price and cost), how it can be understood and managed, and why it is the only effective and appropriate principle by which to navigate complexity.

Interestingly, in formulating his OODA loop – Observe, Orientate, Decide, Act, John Boyd implicitly recognised the importance of the Complexity, People, and Value dynamic, in ‘life or death’ combat situations.  

Agility, adaptiveness and conscious awareness of unfolding circumstances is what sets Boyd’s and NIP’s approach from conventional, linear and often  simplistic and rigid cause-and-effect thinking and processes.  

Of course, ‘frozen-in-time’ methodologies and rules have their place, especially in narrow ‘exploit’ situations, but they must be consciously deployed and carefully monitored, or the consequences can be catastrophic, as Boyd pointed out. 

Conventional Approaches Don’t Take Complexity Into Account

Conventional approaches have their place: nobody is suggesting that contracts should go in the bin, that standards have nothing useful to say, and so on.

However, the way they are currently being used fails to recognise the reality of Complexity and attempts (but fails) to work against it – instead treating reality as “complicated”: 

This involves a set of fatal (albeit usually subconscious) misassumptions about the challenges faced:

  • That they are knowable, and can be anticipated, mitigated against and “solved”.
  • They can be clearly defined, are mostly tangible and remain static.
  • They are the sum of their parts.
  • That effectiveness in response requires prioritising efficiency and optimisation.  

We have got here for several reasons:

  • Human beings prefer order to “disorder”: we want things to be predictable and controlled, and we like (and take pride in) resolving challenges.
  • This basic human trait has been further accentuated by the scientific method – reflected in the business world by Scientific Management – and by the Industrial Revolution, where scientific advances led the world to be understood principally as a “machine”.
  • There are absolutely times when this more “mechanistic”, “command and control” approach absolutely makes sense, e.g. where things are predictable and unchanging, with optimisation and efficiency paramount.

However, today’s environment and strategic relationships are dominated by the fuzzy and subjective, the unknown and the unpredictable, and by constant and rapid change.

Conventional Approaches Make Things Worse

Conventional approaches, as they are typically used, therefore create huge inefficiencies and waste:

  • Standards and best practice guides: these are ever more detailed and to be implemented in full, by everyone – the assumption being that “a rising tide will float all boats” – but usually with little nuance for specific circumstances, such that resources are squandered. 
  • Organisational hierarchies: these are fixed and create bottlenecks at the “top” through which everything must flow “down”, delaying and distorting flows back “up” from the ground.
  • Formal processes and structures: these artificially constrain information-exchange, networking and action, all of which need to be dynamic and rapid to encourage innovation, change and agility.
  • Behavioural training: this implies that it is the people that are at fault – not the approaches and tools in use, from which behaviours emerge – which misses the point and actively demoralises people.

Even the pursuit of technology usually involves a sense that all situations are ultimately reducible to a challenge of analysis and processing, with responsibility significantly “abdicated” to a “system” – both again missing the point and squandering the human intelligence available.

As a variant of the quote often attributed to Einstein puts it, “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them”.

A new approach is needed to respond appropriately to Complexity – one rooted in Complexity itself by being centred on People, and led by Value.

That approach is Value Management.

Articles related to Failed Approaches:

Empathy: the Missing Piece of the Collaboration Puzzle

Empathy: the Missing Piece of the Collaboration Puzzle

Commercial relationships are struggling, and nowhere is this more true than in collaborative relationships. Such relationships are where Complexity – from both inside and outside the relationship – is highest, and where the fatal flaws in how we typically operate are most clearly (and devastatingly)…

Misalignment on Things That Matter: Proving the Point

Misalignment on Things That Matter: Proving the Point

The Things That Matter aren’t clear or aligned in our relationships. This missing empathy is what is inhibiting understanding, preventing the management of differences, and hampering authentic collaboration. All of this – and more – was demonstrated through a recent workshop exercise we ran….

Relationships: The Will May Be There… But The Way Isn’t

Relationships: The Will May Be There… But The Way Isn’t

In our latest webinar on the Things That Matter, polls demonstrated that the will to understand partners may be there, but the way isn’t. Well-intended personal contact tries and fails to plug that gap, with negative and challenging experiences continuing to dominate relationships. This isn’t…

Things That Matter: the State of the (Dis-)Union

Things That Matter: the State of the (Dis-)Union

In a recent webinar on the Things That Matter, polls of attendees revealed low confidence, fragmented focus, and many issues on the ground. Whilst expected, it’s a stark reminder of the state of disunion when it comes to what matters. Something needs to be done….