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Organisational change; Complexity’s place in managing successful change - CITI
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Organisational change; Complexity’s place in managing successful change

Complexity’s place in managing successful changeWhilst our previous two articles have focused on why complex organisational change and pre-determined processes are hard to reconcile, this is little help to us in answering the question of “how do we actually cater for complexity in a change environment?”

Because the nature of complexity relates to overall unpredictability, or the unpredictability of different variables’ interactions, it is not the same as complication.

Complicated things, like multi-system environments offering innumerable configurations, are daunting enough – but not complex. This means they do have a saving grace; whilst the different configurations may be almost infinite, when one particular configuration is selected the result is, invariably, the same!

For example, an aircraft, comprising of thousands of components in scores or even hundreds of systems, is clearly complicated; however, when it is configured in a particular way its behaviour is consistent (that degree of thrust, combined with this degree of flaps, and a set amount of weight, will result in lift). On every occasion on which that configuration is selected – it will climb.


Predictability is the key that allows us to manage complicated things. Because, with predictability, we can manage things through creating the process/es that allow us to safely fly even a complicated structure like an aircraft.

Complexity is different, it doesn’t behave in a uniform or predictable way. For this very reason it won’t yield to a process. Indeed, expecting it to yield to a process is going to end in frustration followed, in short order, by failure. Therefore, trying to rigorously apply a change process to genuinely complex change is doomed – we need to reconsider our strategy.

The start point for reconsideration is answering the question “what nature of complexity do we face?”. If we know that complexity won’t yield to the stable rules of existing processes, we must understand the nature of what we are dealing with to evolve an effective approach. The answer to this question gives us the first clues as to appropriate ‘management’ strategies.

For example, if unresolvable ambiguity over requirements is the root of our complexity then Agile approaches are far more likely to represent a sound strategy than sequential approaches. However, if the complexity is rooted in resource then the adoption of a process such as Agile could easily prove a frustrating diversion; we would be better focusing on strategies of goal orientation and clarification of role boundaries. But, of course, if the complexity is rooted in organisational or political considerations neither of the previous two strategies will provide us a good result.

Sources of complexity

You see complexity arises from different (largely human-related) sources. It is the understanding of that source, or sources, that is the route to effective strategies for managing complex environments. Without understanding the sources of complexity, the chances of happening upon an appropriate approach diminishes. Simply trying to, more rigorously, apply a consistent process to an inconsistent problem causes that diminishing likelihood of success to reach a vanishing point.

This boils down to understanding the problem of complexity at its roots, before trying to determine a strategy, far less a process for its effective management. Once the sources or drivers of complexity are understood it becomes very much clearer which management approaches should be emphasised to successfully manage the change journey as it unfolds. However, this is not the end of the story; because the nature of organisational change is complex and the change itself, as well as its management, will remain dynamic.  The complexity itself may well evolve and render previous approaches less effective or obsolete.

Now, if you don’t have an organiser for complexity, or a tool for analysing it, you are at an extreme disadvantage; CITI has been using these tools and organisers for a long time to help, achieve complex change successfully. Which tools do you use? Or what is the approach that you favour when the processes that are applied to change don’t give you the expected results? Please let us know or join the discussion on our Centre of Excellence Club (also known as CofEe club) and join the dialogue.

Nick Dobson

Nick Dobson, Principal Consultant

Nick is a highly experienced consultant in project and programme management and the sponsorship of such initiatives. A practitioner, with over 25 years of experience, he has been deeply involved in projects, throughout the lifecycle, as well as discharging operational management functions in a variety of sectors. Nick can be contacted via email at