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 Complexity means we can’t rely on a straight line to our goals

Improving Systems and Habits

Scott Miker is the author of several books that describe how to use systems and habits to improve.  This free blog provides articles that to help understand the principles related to building systems.  

Complexity means we can’t rely on a straight line to our goals

Scott Miker

The world seems to be getting more and more complex all the time.  Many of us think of a simpler time when there wasn’t as much choice, wasn’t as much to do, and wasn’t as much to manage every day.

In many cases the answer is to simplify.  We have to realize when we add unnecessary complication to something.  But often this isn’t enough.  We also have to be able to adapt to changing situations and growing complexity that is out of our hands. 

In the book, Take Command, by Jake Wood, the author talks about how to deal with complexity by breaking it down into smaller, manageable chunks.  But he doesn’t say we need to fully define each of these chunks, he says that because we can’t fully define each chunk we have to simply move forward and attack that chunk in front of us.

Years ago I was given responsibility to take over a failing initiative at an organization.  The organization had sunk hundreds of thousands of dollars into making it work but it wasn’t functioning as expected.  It was suddenly looking like an embarrassment for the organization. 

They asked my team to take over the project and figure out the strategic direction.  Initially many people on the team and familiar with the project said it was impossible to turn it around. 

But we knew that we didn’t have the option to quit so we simply started to look at what we could do with it.  We didn’t define an ideal state and work towards it because we knew that would lead us in a direction where we would be chasing ideals instead of reality. 

So we broke it down into phases.  Phase 1 would be to address certain aspects of the program.  We met heavy resistance from other stakeholders because they argued that we needed to address all of the issues, not just some.  But we kept to our plan and didn’t fully define all of what the other phases entailed.  We knew what they were but we couldn’t know exactly what we would decide when we got there.

This is very scary for most people.  There is a level of trust and confidence to say that we only know roughly what we are going to do to tackle that problem.  We knew it was a problem and knew we would have to address it but we also knew that we had to start making progress and building momentum in the right direction.

As we completed phase 1 and moved to phase 2 we started to see things much more clearly.  We understand the variables and started to determine our next steps.  This turned into a much better strategy than what we could have developed at the start.  If we developed a detailed plan from the start we would have skewed our next steps trying to reach those original goals and objectives. 

By remaining flexible and focusing solely on one small piece at a time we were able to turn the program around.  We did this iteratively.  The interesting thing is that we were actually relying on the principles of Agile Project Management.  We didn’t utilize the detailed steps of Agile but we relied on the principles behind it. 

Wood talks about this from a different perspective in his book.  He says that they used a similar mentality when they were taught how to navigate through terrain in sniper school.  He says that it is shortening the operational cycle.

“The natural response is to immediately start trying to map that ten kilometer route, from beginning to end.  But what if, instead, you break the journey up into manageable legs?  What if each leg becomes a benchmark at which you’ll evaluate your next course of action according to the situation?  You don’t try to get from A to Z in one journey; instead, you set Z as the goal, and then focus on getting to D by moving from A to B to C.  At D you reevaluate, and start the process over again.”

Whatever big goal we want to achieve we have to understand the process that we will need to take to get there.  But if the goal is big and important, chances are there is complexity and there are things that you can’t possibly know at the start.  The answer isn’t to quit or look for something easier.  The answer is to break it into chunks, phases, or legs.  Then attack each section and determine the best next steps from there.