Managing Complexity in 6 Simple Steps

by Mike O'Neill

Have you noticed that over time your business has become much more complicated? It may seem like every time you turn around — there are changes with regulations, business politics, business cycles, and technology investments, and more. You need to manage the growing complexity in your business, but you don't know where to start.

Have you found yourself asking, “why has business gotten so complicated?” I’ve found that leaders usually respond to this complexity by creating new management layers, new processes, and new rules. Yet, in doing so, they’re making their organizations more complicated, more bureaucratic, and less able to adapt and remain competitive.

Growth is a marker of a business’s success, as having growth is critical to its survival. But, with this growth — and all of the changes — comes complexity. 

Now you’re trying to streamline operations and make adjustments to your processes.

Maybe you’ve discovered that something was unnecessarily complicated when you had a disruption to your business and decided to make some changes. 

Or, an employee brought to light the full complexity of your current way of doing things, so now you’re turning your attention to making some changes.  

In the book—Six Simple Rules: How To Manage Complexity Without Getting Complicated—Boston Consulting Group partners Yves Morieux and Peter Tollman offer excellent tips to help increasingly complex organizations improve their performance.

We summarize some of those tips and provide our insider insight in the following article. Keep reading to learn how you can manage complexity within your organization in 6 simple steps.

6 Simple Steps to Managing Complexity 

According to The Boston Consulting Group’s Complexity Index, “business complexity has increased sixfold in the past sixty years.” As if that growth was not enough, “the number of structures, processes, committees, decision-making forums, and systems has increased by … thirty-five.” 

Because of this increase, businesses must learn to manage their complexity better.  Thankfully, these six steps keep it simple so you can implement them right away.

1. Understand What Your Employees Do

In most companies, managers know what people are supposed to do – but not WHAT they do and WHY they do it. Managers should find out “why they do things that could be potentially disastrous in terms of productivity”, — such as, What resources do they have for problem-solving? What hinders them from achieving their goals?

When you don’t engage or interact with your employees frequently, you miss lots of opportunities to optimize productivity and improve their feelings about their work and your company.

The better you can understand your employees, the easier your job is to keep them happy and satisfied with their work. 

Happy Employees = Productive Employees 

Understanding what your employees go through daily, alerts you to your organization’s problems much faster — making managing complexity much simpler.

2. Reinforce the “Integrators”

Integrators are the employees who have both the interest and the power to make others cooperate. For example, people in positions like hotel receptionists usually lack formal power. Still, they are interested and able to get housekeeping and maintenance workers to address problems quickly, so they don’t have to hear customer complaints.

Find a way to empower employees who naturally befriend coworkers and inspire them to improve working conditions and product or service quality. The more empowered they are, the more they’ll influence your company and culture positively.

Reinforce their actions by publicly recognizing the good things they’re doing for the company as a whole. Make sure you’re specific and detailed with your praise so co-workers can model that same behavior.

3. Give More People More Power

The real key to performance is combining cooperation with autonomy. The problem with standard approaches to an increasingly complex business environment is that by creating new layers, processes, and systems to deal with these challenges, you also sacrifice people’s autonomy. That makes your organization less agile.

One of the effects of smart simplicity is to balance autonomy and cooperation. It gives people enough power to take the risk of interpreting rules, using their judgment and intelligence. Suppose more employees have the authority to make decisions in your organization. In that case, that means they can solve problems on their own. 

Promote and practice collaboration between employees and allow them to have as much freedom over their jobs as possible. Simply letting them choose when they work and how the work gets done can make a huge difference in how much effort they put into their jobs.

4. Take Away Resources

Having fewer resources means people have no choice but to rely on each other, fostering cooperation. Take steps to streamline resources and processes to create an environment of unavoidable cooperation and collaboration to get things done.

Think of a household with several people living in it. If those people own multiple televisions, there is no need for them to cooperate about what to watch. But, if you take away all the televisions except one, they’ll have to cooperate. 

Do they want to watch baseball or Shakespeare?

5. Make Sure Your Employees Eat Their Cooking

People work better when they understand — and have to live with — the consequences of their actions. 

Too many times, people have no idea how the work they do fits into the bigger picture. People focus on performing the duties they've been tasked with, oblivious to how their work impacts the quality of the products or the people they work with.

For example, a car company’s products were famously hard to repair, so they sent their engineers to work in that department. Confronted with the repair problem themselves, these engineers quickly found solutions to make cars easier to fix — solving the problem.

When you require employees to face the consequences of their actions, they begin to understand how their work fits into the entire process. They’ll make fewer careless mistakes and pay more attention to their work quality.

6. Don’t Punish Failure — Punish the Failure to Cooperate

If people are afraid to fail, they’ll hide issues from you and your peers. Reward people who surface problems — and address those who don’t come together to help solve them. 

Supervisors with low EQ (emotional intelligence) can poison your culture with arrogant and overly-dismissive behavior. A toxic work environment like this fosters distrust and destroys morale. Less-confident employees become afraid to speak up for fear of being criticized and shunned. Others become cynical. This can result in everyone being too busy watching their own back no longer caring about the company.

If your employees don't alert you to issues, your organization's problems will likely go unnoticed until they become critical and disrupt your day-to-day business operations.

Reward employees who present problems with your willingness to analyze and evaluate the situation in an unbiased, non-judgemental manner. Address problem employees by establishing boundaries and calling them out on their inappropriate behavior logically and in a non-confrontational way. 

Present them with evidence to back up what you’re saying and be firm about your expectations going forward, as well as what the consequences are should they refuse to act professionally.

Get Help With Managing Your Complexity

Getting help with managing your business complexity will help simplify your daily process. Look at getting help the same way you delegate tasks across your team. 

Are you still feeling stuck? Let us help you discover what's keeping you stuck and preventing your business from growing. When you sign up for our Get Unstuck & On-Target Workshop, you'll learn how to manage your business's complexity and start putting it into practice.

Together we'll identify your challenges and opportunities, prioritize the ones that will have the most impact, and narrow them down into the three most effective things for you to implement to see improvement.

In just a few short hours, you will have narrowed down hundreds of potential decisions into a single, executable plan. You'll walk away with a process you can use every time you need to narrow your choices and find the best way forward.

As a business owner or leader, you have too many things that can affect your focus. This workshop will help you manage complexity in your company with a repeatable process to focus on the things that will drive the most improvement across your organization. 

Sign up for your seat in the workshop now.


This Quiz is Going to Assess you in 3 main Areas...



People is about making sure that you have the right people in the right positions in your company, and that you have a plan for how to retain and train your top talent.


Planning is all about knowing where you're going and having exact steps that you can take for how you're going to get from here to there.


Process is about having efficient systems in place to help you get ahead of your competitors faster and with fewer mistakes.

Life is really simple, but we insist on making it complicated. – Confucius

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