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The James B. Rieley Column

Image: James B. RieleyEver been to one of those dire corporate meetings? You know, the ones in which someone sits there and talks incessantly about things that you; (a) have little interest in, (b) aren’t involved in, (c) don’t have the responsibility for, or (d) have heard so many times that you want to get lost in the Prozac factory? Well I have, and whilst I had thought I had seen it all, the other day I was in a meeting that set a new record for doing all four.

The presenter at the meeting was articulate; as a matter of fact, his talk about the intricacies of the subject matter was detailed beyond belief. However, this was where his speech was lost on the attendees. He was talking about the complexities that the company would encounter as they drove a new initiative to gain market share for his company; but all he did was speak about the various elements of the details and completely neglected talking about the interrelationships between the elements of the initiative. The difference between detail complexity and dynamic complexity is startling, and too often, we treat the former as the be-all and end-all of corporate wisdom. But it is an understanding of the latter that can be the make-or-break of proposed corporate initiatives.

An example of detail complexity, in the case of a sales-oriented organization, might include the requisite number of sales calls, the number of actual sales, and the number of products or services delivered on-time and in-full – all very important things that need to be focused on in sales. Nevertheless, by looking through the lens of dynamic complexity, we can see that it is the ability to build strong, ongoing relationships with potential purchasers, the ability to close final sales agreements, and the ability to deliver on time and in-full that carry all the leverage. Too often, when proposing specific corporate initiatives, we neglect the dynamic complexity and instead, put together metrics that only look at the detail complexity. And this is why so many corporate initiatives need to be driven to be successful, instead of just being led.

“Understanding and applying the lessons of dynamic complexity is one way to tell if the person you report to knows how to manage, or knows how to lead.”

Understanding dynamic complexity is something that few business schools or corporate training programmes talk about. They instead help managers and employees learn how to get the job done. Getting the job done is a function of management, and we all know managers who do that quite well. But simply focusing on managing can be hard work – harder than it needs to be.

Understanding and applying the lessons of dynamic complexity is one way to tell if the person you report to knows how to manage, or knows how to lead. A good leader – i.e. a person who demonstrates solid leadership by creating environments in which his or her people can succeed and realize their potential – is someone who constantly looks at the interrelationships between what needs to be done and why, at what some of the unintended consequences are of implementing the decision, and at how to ensure sustainable gains from the decision.

Don’t get me wrong. I love details. I love knowing lots of details. But I also am quite conscious of the fact that knowing even all of details is not where the leverage is. Real leverage is found in understanding the interrelationships between the details:

  • Understanding detail complexity is to know how to build an airplane; understanding dynamic complexity is to know how to make it fly.

  • Understanding detail complexity is to know how to train employees; understanding dynamic complexity is to know how to create an environment in which employees can, and want to learn.
  • Understanding detail complexity is to know how to grow an organization; understanding dynamic complexity is to know how to sustain the gains that have resulted from growth.

One of the real signals of the ability to look at, and understand, dynamic complexity can be found in communications. By focusing on detail complexity in communications, we are dooming our managers and employees to be relegated to living in a micro-level world.

This can generate lots of activity, but usually also results in hard-won gains that are rarely sustainable. By focusing on dynamic complexity in communications, we are helping our people to know where they need to focus their efforts to ensure long-term success. And I think that this is what business is all about.

June 2010.

James B. Rieley advises senior leadership teams from all sectors of business and industry, higher education, and government, and has written extensively on the subject of improving organizational performance through leadership development.

As the CEO of a manufacturing company in the United States, he demonstrated an ability to innovate and create environments in which employees could be successful. He is able to draw on over 30 years in business, both as senior management and as a consultant to management with organizations such as BP, Shell and Philips. His work has been published in The Journal for Organisational Excellence, Quality Progress, The Systems Thinker, National Productivity Review, The Business Journal, Leverage, and On The Horizon amongst many others.

He can be contacted at [email protected] and via his website at