Skip to content

To Solve Complex Problems, You Need A Networked Solution

2017 November 5
by Greg Satell

Every leader tries to keep things simple and predictable. You hire good people, treat them well, give them clear objectives and do your best to stay out of their way. If you do your homework, plan things well and your people execute efficiently, everything should go off without a hitch. Or so the thinking goes.

Yet reality often intrudes on even the best laid plans. Technology evolves, customer tastes change and competitors release new offerings. Before you know it, your simple model becomes dizzyingly complex and your organization is struggling to coordinate a response to a rapidly changing marketplace.

The truth is that we need to manage for complexity, not simplicity and many organizations are poorly fit to adapt. The answer does not lie in better planning or execution, but greater empowerment. We need to shift our organizations from hierarchies to networks and learn how to facilitate horizontal connections across the enterprise at an operational cadence.

How Things Get So Complex

What is perhaps most important to understand about complexity is that it is, to a large extent, unavoidable. The US Constitution is prized for its simplicity and elegance, but the current federal legal code we use to execute that initial document is millions upon millions of words long. People work their entire lives to become experts in just a narrow slice of it.

In Overcomplicated complexity theorist Sam Arbesman gives two reasons why this is necessarily so. The first is accretion. We build systems, like the Constitution or the Internet, to perform a limited number of tasks. Yet to scale those systems, we need to build on top of them to expand their initial capabilities. As the system gets larger, it gets more complex.

The second force that leads to complexity is interaction. We may love the simplicity of our iPhones, but don’t want to be restricted to its capabilities alone. So we increase its functionality by connecting it to millions of apps. Those apps, in turn, connect to each other as well as to other systems.

So while it’s natural to yearn for a simpler existence, we still want to connect to Yelp to find a nice place where we can have a quiet beer and contemplate our spartan values. Then we want the app to connect to Google Maps so we can find that island of tranquility without getting lost and to Uber so we can get there easily.

A Moving Target

A third factor in complexity is the property of emergence. When we have many things interacting the result tends to be something unexpected. For example, our traffic laws interact not only with other laws, but also with the daily habits of millions of people as well as things like construction and repair schedules. Even a small change can result in radically different traffic patterns.

In Micromotives and Macrobehavior, Nobel prizewinning economist Thomas Schelling showed how even good intentions can go awry. The best known example is his segregation model, in which even those who prefer to live in mixed neighborhoods (but not to be outnumbered) can give rise to extreme segregation.

It is the property of emergence that makes managing in the real world a moving target, because as we make our plans, everyone else is making theirs. The combined effect of all these independent actions reshape the competitive landscape in ways that are impossible to predict and traditional hierarchical structures are poorly suited to adapt at anything near the speed required.

General Stanley McChrystal experienced an extreme version of this in Iraq. As he would later write in Team of Teams, “the world had outpaced us. In the time it took us to move a plan from creation to approval, the battlefield for which the plan had been devised would have changed. By the time it had been implemented, the plan — however ingenious in its initial design — was often irrelevant.”

Networking Solutions

Networking is one of the most overused terms in business today. It can refer to everything from a beer after work to an expensive corporate retreat. The underlying idea, all too often, is that random encounters lead to good and unexpected places. There is some truth to that, but the reality is that it is incredibly rare and the most effective networking isn’t random at all.

The challenge today is that change happens so fast that networking needs to happen at an operational cadence. When we have to solve a problem, we can’t wait to randomly come across someone who can help us at a social event or annual offsite. We need to continuously connect silos both inside and outside our organization through fostering horizontal connections.

In One Mission, McChrystal’s former aide de camp Chris Fussell describes two strategies they found effective. The first is the Operations and Intelligence (O&I) forum. These are meetings, usually held among a core set of people but open to anybody in the the wider organization through videoconference. It is held regularly, usually daily or weekly, and is made up of short briefings on anything important that is going on.

The second are liaison officers. These are not the usual coordination positions, but are restricted to high performing executives that can build credibility throughout an organization. For example, liaison officers at Eastdil Secured, a real estate investment bank, hold their positions for nine months and are responsible for explaining what relevance recent transactions in their office may have for the greater organization.

These are, of course, only two options. Every organization needs to experiment and decide for itself what works best for their culture and strategy.

Losing Control, Gaining Power

As managers, we like things to be simple enough so that we can understand and control them. Yet at some point we need to come to terms with the fact that the lunatics run the asylum. If you limit the problems you can solve to those that you can directly manage, you will soon find yourself swallowed up by the inherent complexity of today’s marketplace.

As Talia Milgrom-Elcott, Executive Director of 100Kin10, an organization which is committed to improving STEM education, told me, “complex problems tend to have multiple interconnected roots that require multiple interconnected solutions and can benefit from a networked approach based on shared values.”

The answer is not to try to make things simpler and neither is it to design an organizational structure so complex that nobody can understand it, but rather to enable and empower informal relationships across your enterprise. Network theory shows that it takes a surprisingly small amount of these informal linkages to dramatically bring down social distance and help you adapt.

So we should, as Alfred North Whitehead wisely advised, “Seek simplicity but distrust it.” If it’s simple enough for us to fully grasp, it’s probably too slow and rigid to be effective. Or, as General McChrystal put it, “the role of the leader was no more that of controlling puppet master, but of an empathetic crafter of culture.”

– Greg


An earlier version of this article first appeared in

No comments yet

Leave a Reply

Note: You can use basic XHTML in your comments. Your email address will never be published.

Subscribe to this comment feed via RSS