A VUCA series: complexity is nothing to be afraid of

Five people stood around a table in an office discussing

With the level of sophistication in business and technology that we have as humans, you’d think we could crack the code of simplifying complexity.

However, the truth is quite the opposite. Organizations are complex “organisms” and complexity increases the larger they become. It will always be something we struggle with to some extent and there are several elements that increase complexity within enterprises:

  • Environmental changes, including shifting customer needs that increase the number and variety of customers, partners, vendors and other stakeholders
  • The rise of technology systems and platforms, which can result in implementing or migrating complex, disparate and legacy toolsets, leading to “tech sprawl”
  • Increasing quantities of information and data with conflicting or confusing processes, policies/rules and procedures
  • People, teams and their reporting structure crossing a number of locations, divisions, facilities, departments, management layers or silos; also, matrixed organizations where people report to more than one person
  • A level of bureaucracy generated by reviews and approvals, documentation requirements, etc.

Complexity in the volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous (VUCA) state

What makes complexity so problematic for organizations?

It keeps us from reacting quickly to changes in our environment, so it becomes extremely tempting to maintain the “status quo” and not change at all.

However, if we do try to change, we are often surprised with the amount of work and how many people are involved in the conversation; managing competing needs and the number of other elements impacted.

Often, complexity makes it harder to get products and services into the hands of our customers, thereby increasing costs, decreasing profitability and introducing delays.

There can also be lots of unnecessary or extra steps involved which delay service delivery – and we are then limited in our ability to help our customers when issues or requested changes arise.

We also tend to see only part of the “bigger picture” in highly complex environments, making it harder to work on the right things, make good decisions and determine the cause of problems.

Key concepts in ITIL® 4 that address complex challenges

The guiding principle of “Keep it simple and practical” in ITIL 4 can be extremely helpful in tackling complexity. It’s a consideration we should make when approaching any new initiative, problem, customer request, etc. This guiding principle also speaks to removing waste whenever possible.

Throughout ITIL 4, there are a range of concepts that can help:

  • Defining clear goals, strategy and then focusing the organization on these goals so everyone is “on the same page” and can prioritize high-value work. The Business Model and Operating Model Canvases in ITIL 4 Leader: Digital and IT Strategy can help.
  • Creating modular structures through self-organized and cross-trained teams with the authority to resolve complexity-related issues. With technology, we’ve seen this kind of modular development with concepts like containerization and microservices, also discussed in Create, Deliver and Support. With these methods, software applications are created in modules rather than monolithic architectures, making them easier to update or remove without affecting the entire software system.
  • Being able to do fewer things better by regularly reviewing and reducing the number of technologies, projects, products, services, etc. in our environment. Approaches for this are detailed in the ITIL 4 Service Catalogue and Portfolio Management practice guides found in My ITIL.

Complexity – something to be afraid of?

Rather than treating complexity as something to fear, we should think of it as either useful or wasteful.

As an organization grows and you innovate, you naturally add levels of complexity. This is okay, as long as it adds value and isn’t keeping you from what you’re trying to achieve.

However, where an organization has complexity that doesn’t make sense – such as requiring multiple approvals or excess documentation – you should be aiming to simplify.

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