Simplifying Complexity

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In my last few blogs I have been discussing a number of leadership behaviors and traits, some which are clearly appreciated by all of us and some which on surface look like behaviors which leaders should not indulge in, are critical to success in a leadership role. Misleading, breaking trust with some people and at times downright lying are not behaviors one would appreciate in a leader, however, these are necessary to achieve the higher aim of the leader.
In this blog, I am picking up another leadership competency/behaviors which is not so common, which is to make things simple. In my career of over 32 years encompassing the army and two stints in senior corporate rolesand now as a consultant, I have had the opportunity of working with and observing a number of leaders in action. All of them have diverse styles and their own way of getting things done through their teams. One thing which I noticed in the best was their ability to making things simple for their team. They had developed the ability to look at a very complex situation, understand the key ingredients and then explain it in very simple terms to their teams who had to execute. As my instructor at Defence services staff college would say
Any idiot can make the simple complex, it takes genius to make the complex simple
But as I said, such leaders were rare in army, equally rare in my corporate experience and I see the same trend in my consulting career. In my army and corporate roles, I thought that this may be due to unique character of the organization (army and IT), however, I am observing the same trend in my consulting career where I have had the opportunity or working in diverse industry segments like manufacturing, pharma, telecom, medical services, IT, ITES, infrastructure and power. This leads me to believe that this competency is not so common across industries.
In the last few years there has been a lot of focus on adapting and excelling in this world of instant communication, fast moving and constantly changing environment and connected world. A number of term to describe this environment have been bandied about including the much abused VUCA (Volatile, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity). The term first originated in 1990s from the military and has then moved to describe the conditions in business and economic activity. In such kind of environment, the ability of a leader to make sense of what is happening, understand the implications for own organization, department and team and then explain the action items to his/her team become absolutely critical. Leaders who exhibit this competency are going to be valued as they are able to deliver results consistently through their teams in any business situation.
Over the last few years I have come across a number of leaders who would make us believe that every business situation is complicated, complex and beyond the capability of any of their team members. They would also make us believe that they are the only ones who can deal with such situations and are therefore indispensable. These type of leaders are in sharp contrast to the leader who is able to make the complex so simple that any member of his team can excel in that situation.
So what does simplifying mean?
If we start with the definition of each of the elements of VUCA we can get a good understanding of what great leaders do when one or more of the VUCA components are present.
Volatility is related to the speed of change in the business environment, Uncertainty means that outcomes of any action are less predictable, Complexity is due to interdependencies within the organization as well as the world and Ambiguity is about the lack if complete information and the vast number of available options.
Great leaders are able to create an island of certainty in the ocean of chaos for their teams.
They do this by their ability to question critical issues and thereby develop a deeper understanding of trends in their industry, so that they can predict future changes with a high percentage of certainty. This would help them make a workable plan to deal with Volatility in the business environment, which could be executed through their teams. Uncertainty and Complexity are to a certain extent interdependent as the higher the complexity, the more is the uncertainty of outcomes. Great leaders tend to spend a lot of time mastering the various facets of their business in terms of technology, competition, business environment, future trends as well as understanding the capabilities of their teams. They also spend a lot of time developing strong relationships within the organization and outside. Leveraging these two aspects helps them to reduce the uncertainty and complexity in a given situation. This makes it easy for their teams of perform at optimum level in these situations.
Of all the aspects related to simplifying, I tend to rate dealing with ambiguity as the most important competency in a leader. In today’s business environment, where you are never going to have all the information available to take an informed decision and where there are multiple options, leaders need to develop the ability of working with contradictions in a world where there are no clear choices. One of the ways which seems to work is to make small experiments towards reaching the final goal, constantly seeking feedback and adjusting and adapting the proposed solution. In such a situation, simplifying would be in terms of being able to clarify and provide direction to the team towards achieving these small goals and of asking the teams to be open to feedback.
Great leaders are able to take a complex issue and convert it into a simple list of action items which their teams can follow.
So what are you waiting for? Go out in the world and Simplify complexity!

Rajiv is the principal consultant at R Square Consulting. Rajiv can be reached at for any query, discussion or professional requirements.
About R Square consulting : R Square consulting provides end to end services in the field of building leadership and managerial capability to include leadership development interventions based on a holistic blend of exploration, reflection, action learning and coaching, assessment centers and various Organizational development interventions.
We are a HR consulting firm providing customised and holistic HR interventions for developing the human capital of an organization through:
Executive Coaching
Assessment and Development Centers
Organizational Development Interventions
Leadership and managerial development
Flexi HR support for SME
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