To Master Complexity, Simplify | Defined Ventures, Inc.

From AI and automation, to new technologies and disruptive digital innovations, the world of business is rapidly evolving. The need to remain competitive despite these emerging changes is higher than ever. So, too, is the challenge associated with it.

Today’s businesses face a higher risk of disruption and total annihilation than businesses who thrived just 10 short years ago. Over the years, we’ve watched many companies come and go as a result of this evolutionary process.

The end result is that only the businesses who are able to optimize in real-time and adjust workflows on the fly survive. These are the businesses that meet new needs and truly stay ahead of the pack.

Which isn’t to say we don’t see other businesses making an attempt. In fact, nearly every business alive today is currently scrambling to create internal workflows and processes to address this issue. While it’s a smart move, we also see far too many businesses adding more complexity in the process – and that’s counterintuitive.

The Complexity Problem

Businesses suffer when workflows, processes, and internal support systems become too complex. They create more and more structure in an attempt to make sense of it all.

The logic here is that creating processes to address each individual concern should theoretically provide some benefit. Unfortunately, that’s not always true.

The devil is in the details and implementation. Trying to address business world evolution by tacking on more rules, more tasks, more cumbersome processes, and more highly complex systems just damages efficiency, kills engagement, and makes for a debilitating and toxic workplace.

Over time, complexity can and will kill your competitive advantage or even your business. Unmanageable internal processes build on each other (and even themselves) over time, becoming more and more severe as your business grows. By the time you realize you have a serious problem, you’re in way over your head.

Identifying & Measuring Complexity in Business

Not sure if you’re suffering due to complexity or just the evolving business market? It may be time to investigate your business and get real about how you work. This includes being bluntly honest with yourself about current structure and processes and how well they work.

Every business is unique, and thus, what they define as “complex” may be vastly different when compared side-by-side. But nearly all internal complexity issues fall within the same three categories:

  • Business complexity.
  • Organizational complexity.
  • Process complexity.

Business complexity is often the most confusing; it refers to strategic alignment issues. It is also typically the most far-reaching complexity issue because it taints all other aspects of business. Failing to align your business to your market is a business-killer more so than any other form of complexity on this list.

Organizational complexity is where we start narrowing down the issue to identify the real problem. This is the form of complexity that most often impacts how and where work is completed. A business with too many international offices, for example, may suffer from consistent issues with global marketing because low-volume offices demand too much time and too many resources for a low-value result.

Process complexity channels the issue down even further. Instead of looking at the business, how the business is organized, or even its goals, it looks at each individual process for efficiency. This includes:

  • The people involved in the process.
  • The IT applications or platforms utilized.
  • Resource allocation between processes.
  • Number of channels interacting with the process.
  • How many interdependencies and handoffs occur.
  • The total time the process takes, start to finish.
  • How often processes take more or less time to finish.
  • How “complex” each process is (total steps from start to finish).

Most businesses find ways to eliminate redundancies and process complexities without harming output, financial costs, or overall efficiency, but sometimes it just doesn’t work. When process complexity occurs, it creates a domino effect that eventually triggers organizational complexity and business complexity later on down the road.

What Makes Addressing Complexity Challenging?

Complexity is a self-perpetuating issue for businesses. This alone makes it difficult to tackle. But there are other reasons why businesses often struggle eliminate complexity. They are especially applicable to large-scale enterprises and corporations which may have inherent complexity just by existing.

That said, most businesses struggle to address complexity for one of four specific reasons:

  • Complexity is difficult to identify. Unlike other business issues, complexity is, well, complex. Fixing it requires a top-down investigation of the business and a wholly customized solution. This is difficult and overwhelming especially if symptoms aren’t yet severe.
  • Complexity is too developed to fix. Businesses see and recognize the complexity, but feel they are powerless to reduce or fix it due to external pressures. They may feel addressing complexity would damage business or require too much work.
  • Complexity is difficult to measure. Not all complexity is inherently bad; some process complexity makes sense for highly complex businesses. This can make it extremely difficult to measure the issue. Adding further confusion is the difficulty of analyzing more abstract issues like unproductive time wasted during the average work day.
  • Not taking responsibility for complexity. In some ways, this is the biggest predictor of poor prognosis in complexity. No one within the business wants to be responsible for the issue and fixing it. It goes unaddressed, escalating, and people involved with business management become disengaged and disillusioned.

Further Defining Complexity Issues

We know how complexity occurs, and even why it proliferates despite attempts to fix it. But how can we eliminate it? Are more processes and layers ever the best approach, or is this little more than a self-defeating attempt?

Truthfully, it does make sense to add more layers and processes from time to time. The catch here is that they need to reduce overall complexity when added, not create more of a problem.

Overly complex software is a fantastic example. Let’s say you have two pieces of software that achieve the same goal.

The first has 10,000,000 lines of poorly optimized code; the maker continuously adds more to address performance issues and feature desires. This bogs the software down and worsens performance issues.

The second has just 30,000 lines of code optimized for performance. Instead of including every feature, it uses a modular approach that allows customers to “add on” what they need and leave out what they don’t.

The second option here is naturally the best approach. It works better, it’s better tailored to the business, and it still leaves plenty of room for augmentation if something changes. Even though it’s simpler, it’s still more effective – just like simplification in business.

Simplifying Complexity

Forbes writer Ron Ashkenas, a simplicity Guru, applies this concept to businesses in a simple, seven-step approach:

  • Clear the underbrush. Get rid of stupid rules, unnecessary bureaucracy, totally redundant processes, and excess bloat. If it’s not needed and getting rid of it won’t negatively impact business, get rid of it. It’s clutter.
  • Take an outside-in perspective. Consider the needs of customers, clients, colleagues, partners, and other people who interact with your business. Get to know how and they they turn to you for resources and/or services intimately. Find out what matters to them and what doesn’t, and use it to cut out more bloat.
  • Prioritize, prioritize, prioritize. How important is it? Draw up a priority list for every structure, organizational hierarchy, and process within your business. Figure out what matters internally and what’s just in place because some person, at some point in time, thought it would work (even though it doesn’t).
  • Take the shortest path. Review structures and workflows for redundancies, bottlenecks, loops, and streamlining opportunities. If you can do it in a single step rather than three, make it happen.
  • Stop being so nice. We have a natural tendency to allow respect for fellow colleagues to prevent us from speaking up about serious complexity issues. Refuse to stay quiet; give constructive feedback constantly instead. It’s more respectful to speak up and be part of the solution than allow it to proliferate.
  • Reduce levels and increase spans. Identify where you’re micromanaging or overmanaging and work to reduce the problem. Increase span of control for important managers so they can make decisions faster. If someone needs to go through four managers for approval, there’s a problem.
  • Don’t let the weeds grow back. Continuously monitor and evaluate your business for regression. As mentioned further up, business complexity is a domino-effect issue that often requires semi-constant attention. Let it slip and it will instantly impact your entire business again.


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