Sales Coaching Blog

Coaching In Today's Complex World

Posted by Sarah Wirth

May 30, 2012

When our world was less complex, managing inputs in order to create the right output was aSarah Wirth Complexity Expert logical way to achieve desired results.  In essence, managers could control and manage the production process because they knew that a certain series of inputs would achieve a predictable outcome.  This type of management worked well in an environment that didn’t have such a large number of ever-changing components and helped lead to the rise in quality manufacturing in the early part of the last century. 

Complexity Is Part Of Our World

However, as the world evolved and became more complex over time, simple measures of inputs often do not ensure the predictable outputs that they once did.  An approach that worked well for the last decade or even the last year may no longer be relied up, as circumstances have shifted that quickly.  For example, consider how quickly digital technology revolutionized the music industry.  In 1999, Sean Parker launched Napster, the first mass market way to digitally share music files, and by 2011, digital music outsold all other forms of music sales.  With this massive industry shift, companies that relied on their current strategies and predictors of success quickly found themselves playing catch-up, while those that adapted quickly, such as Apple’s iTunes, became market leaders. 

In addition to the potential for current strategies to quickly become outmoded, there are also so many variables that affect overall performance.  As stated above, the amount of unique information produced each year has grown exponentially.  This means that where a CEO used to have a few hundred different data points that could impact her company, she now has several million pieces of data that are relevant to her overall business.  This makes having a defined, centralized way of analyzing information and determining strategies accordingly much more difficult.  Consider the rise of companies like Google and eBay that were founded on principles of de-centralized decision making (http://www.verizonbusiness.com/resources/pointofview/pv_decentralization-matching-strategy-to-opportunity_en-xg.pdf).  Both of these “new economy” companies realized that there is simply too much information to evaluate, too many alternative paths to consider and too many decisions to make for one leader or a small group of leaders to do it effectively by themselves.  Essentially, the world is too complex to control.  And the vast rise in complexity is the primary reason management is no longer enough.

Complexity Isn't The Sames As Bing Complex

To clarify, complexity is not the same as something being complex.  As an example, an airplane is a complex object.  There are millions of working parts on a plane and they all fit together in sophisticated ways in order to hurl an 800,000 pound object through the sky.  However, there is not complexity in how an airplane works.  This is because each of the different parts in an airplane can be controlled and how those parts works together can be managed.  Ultimately, this leads to airplanes operating in a highly predictable and consistent fashion.

Complexity Embraces The UnKnown

On the other hand, complexity is essentially the unknown.  In a complex system, you can have all the same inputs, but because these inputs are so numerous, interdependent and ever-changing, it is virtually impossible at the outset to predict what the ultimate outcome will be.  For example, when your organization is rolling out a brand new product, you are operating in complexity.  You may have done market research to ensure there are buyers for your new product.  You have likely modeled out the potential sales.  However, there are likely to be some unforeseen factors, good or bad, that impact whether your new product is a success.  And this is why you cannot manage when you are faced with complexity.  There is simply just too much unknown to be able to tightly control the process to achieve a consistent, predictable result.

Coaching in Today’s Complex World

Now if complexity is so difficult, why bother venturing into it?  The answer to that question is simple – complexity creates growth.  When we throw people or organizations into complexity or intentionally embrace the complex that exists in the world around us, we are challenging the status quo.  Embracing complexity forces us to try something that we haven’t done before.  We have to look for an answer to a problem when there is no known solution.  We have to tackle a challenge that was previously thought insurmountable.  We have to discover new ways of working in order to accomplish our goals.  Ultimately, the need to tackle the unknown pushes people to learn and perform in ways they haven’t before, and this is where growth occurs – both for the individual and the organization.  When you effectively embrace complexity, you are able to operate in the high performance zone.

The High Performance Zone

The high performance zone is the area between order and chaos in which a person can explore, strive and grow.  To illustrate the high performance zone, you first need to understand the different extremes of operating in order and working in chaos. 

Think of a hiking a mountain.  For many people, it is best to stick to well-traveled paths.  They like the security of knowing where the path will lead and what will happen on their journey.  They also feel good that many people have traveled that same path before and have reached the desired destination in a safe manner.  Hiking along this well-traveled mountain path is what it means to operate in order.  You know what the destination will be.  You are confident that if you take certain steps, you will reach the outcome you desire.  Your world is predictable and controllable. 

On the other hand, you have chaos.  When hiking a mountain, chaos would be trying to make your way through an unfamiliar forest at nighttime without a compass.  Rather than making your way forward, you are scrambling around scared and unsure of yourself.  In a business, a chaotic environment leads to lack of productivity because the right direction is so unclear.  Perhaps what it means to work in chaos is best described by sociologist Alvin Toffler in his bestselling book Future Shock.  He notes, "When the individual is plunged into a fast and irregularly changing situation, or a novelty-loaded context ... his predictive accuracy plummets. He can no longer make the reasonably correct assessments on which rational behavior is dependent."

Either end of the spectrum does not lead to the best possible results.  When there is too much order, organizations can be stagnant and afraid of risk.  Over time, this can lead to an environment lacking in creativity and mired in bureaucracy.  At the other extreme, working in chaos is also unproductive.  In a chaotic environment, the lack of any predictable and logical path can cause people to take ill-advised risks or to simply avoid any action at all out of fear.

In the middle of these two extremes, lies an area where optimum performance levels can be achieved – the high performance zone.  When operating in the high performance zone, individuals have enough freedom to depart from the everyday order so they are learning, growing and being challenged.  Yet, they also have enough clarity regarding the desired outcome and some logical paths toward it that their world is not chaotic.  When an individual or an organization is operating in the high performance zone, they can achieve the most significant levels of growth.

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