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The importance of navigating complexity in today’s world

Sep 18, 2020

In a world that is getting more complex, how can leaders navigate the constant changes? Managing our responses and developing our thinking and learning is integral to overcoming these challenges, says Patrick Gallen.

We live in a time when change and disruption are constant and being able to navigate change is an indispensable leadership trait.

There is a fundamental difference between seeing the challenges posed by change as one of navigating the complicated versus navigating the complex.

Complicated challenges may be demanding but, with enough information, we can leverage experience and expertise, observe patterns of cause and effect, apply rules and processes and then solve them. This approach is probably no different from the many challenges you face as an accountant in business or practice. As one of my old bosses used to say, we often over-complicate business problems and then must simplify things to solve them.

Complexity, on the other hand, should be navigated differently, because complex systems and environments are made up of a mosaic of diverse yet interdependent elements that interact in unexpected ways. When we look at mechanics and engineering, we find highly complicated systems, like a jet engine.  When we look at nature, we can see highly complex systems, like a coral reef or a natural woodland.

Some of our work may be complicated, but we do that work in a complex environment.

Complex systems do not always follow patterns, and so past behaviour of a complex system may not predict its future behaviour. In a complex system, there is no centre or top from which to direct.  Empowered and self-directed teams ideally can resolve challenges in different parts of a complex system, almost akin to what the various university and pharma teams are doing around the world in the search for a vaccine for COVID-19. When you look at the biggest change challenges you are facing in business or practice, do they resemble the complicated or the complex? 

We know that we cannot exercise complete control in a complex world – the environment is always changing, and we cannot lead people back to the way things were before. We can, however, manage our own response, develop our own thinking, and learn. Under stress, it can be tempting to fall back on our experience and expertise – to get consumed with the details and to narrow our focus.  Leading in a complex system requires us to take a wider view of our firms, our roles, our service lines and our teams, and to see them as part of a much bigger system.  This then has implications for the way we lead as a profession and as accountants, in whatever field we operate.

Patrick Gallen is a Partner in People and Change Consulting in Grant Thornton.