Thinking Managers

Robert Heller of questions whether complexity is something we should resist or simply learn to live with.

Why Things Go Wrong With Over-Complicated Management Styles

Without question, the world is going through a period of acute economic anxiety and falling performance. This is seen in matters both large and small and greatly affects management styles.

This situation is nothing new – what goes up must come down. And although the opposite of that old maxim applies, it is little comfort in the downside years.

There is a greatly increased range of options as growing complexity confronts every manager.

So which among a plethora of choices should we adopt in order to achieve realistic and valuable benefits? The process is shown in the formula of management style expert Peter Drucker:

  • Which activities and policy areas should be tackled?
  • Which activities and policy issues should be safely left to others?
  • Which proposed activities and policies should not be tackled by anyone?

There is a fourth question, regarding fundamental power. Are your activities and policies directed towards realistic, important and rewarding purposes for each measure – financial, economic and social?

And there is a fifth question that goes right to the heart of the matter. Are you analysing every activity and policy to ensure you have understood the root causes of each situation before implementing policies which will commit you to action?

And lastly, has your planning and decision-making been conducted with full participation, encompassing the involvement of the staff and clients who will be affected by any solutions as well as a range of independent expertise?

Some years ago I noted a survey of middle managers that demonstrated unanimous agreement that participation by staff in decisions affecting their work greatly improved the quality of decisions and execution. Puzzlingly, however, the follow-up revealed that none of the managers had taken the basic step of acting on their belief.

The time-dishonoured Order and Obey method might seem like the simpler option. But management styles following that principle miss a vital trick: people have to understand what they are doing and why if complexity is to be conquered.

Learning becomes easier when it is founded on practical problems and solutions – and there’s far more point to it.

Mike Gibson of Pricewaterhouse Coopers featured in a discussion in Management Today on ‘How to Survive Complexity’, saying: “A lot of the complexity we have is self-imposed. We have created things, we have acquired things, and when we look at them they are more complicated than they should be. The impact on cost and speed is clear.”

Accountability is a key point: “Often the model is not fully clear on who is in charge, who is accountable for what when it comes to execution.”

The Management Today debate among managers and experts demonstrated that a major issue is complexity itself. Sir Martin Sorrell commented that in a multi-business, multi-client, multi-market group like WPP, “trying to simplify complexity actually ends up destroying value”.

A wise friend once said to me: “If justifying an investment requires complex calculations, don’t do it.”

Self-imposed overload can be an unnecessary evil. But Sorrell is correct in observing that the networked 21st century “is not for tidy minds”.
About the author
Robert Heller is one of the world’s best selling authors on business management.