Accelerating performance in a complex world

Written by
Sharon Toye
Heidrick & Struggles

13 Apr 2017

13 Apr 2017 • by Sharon Toye


All companies want growth, but growth brings scale, and scale brings complexity. In many companies, more energy is devoted to navigating the labyrinth than achieving results. That’s why one of the fundamental challenges facing today’s business leaders is how to break this vicious cycle and create simplicity out of complexity.

Here are six aspects of complexity with some suggested approaches:

A master of time and space

One of the keys to managing complexity is to be able to take in the bigger picture and join the dots whilst still ensuring things get done in the here-and-now. The most adept business leaders have the knack of being able to look forwards and backwards at the same time – they can learn from the past, deliver in the present and project into the future all at once.

The same ability to learn rapidly and continuously is essential for any team wishing to navigate the future. Consider doing “aftercasts,” just as you would forecasts, to see what they’ve learned and to what isn’t working. Seek feedback, leverage the power of doubt and pre-emptively invest in building capabilities for the future. In this way, you will absorb and implement new learning at pace. 

Who says that's true?

We all have mental filters that help us to manage information overload and to make many routine decisions. But these shortcuts come with a cost. These filters often lead us to see what we expect to see rather than what is actually there, resulting behavioral and organizational blind spots that can lead to disaster.

Learning to filter information is essential.  Colin Powell, the former U.S. secretary of state advocated a 40–70 rule: he argued that you need between 40 percent and 70 percent of the information available to make a good decision. Anything less is too little, and anything more will lead to analysis paralysis.

What's the top priority when everything is a priority?

An effective way to set priorities is to consider four factors. (1) Remember that setting priorities is iterative; (2) don’t take more than six weeks to determine priorities; (3) make sure that the business case is right; and (4) engage your wider leadership team in the process. Ask yourself, “Will setting this priority grow the business faster and more profitably?” and “Does it improve our competitive position?”

Foot on the accelerator but remember the breaks

In my experience the biggest challenge facing CEOs we speak to is getting the pace of improvement inside the organization to equate to the rate of change outside. But speed needs to be handled with care. Putting too much emphasis on speed can lead you into an “acceleration trap” - adopting a frantic pace in all of your activities without ever taking the time to stop and reflect on what is going on. So the challenge is striking the right balance between speed and risk. A constant, frenetic pace saps motivation and morale. Instead, you need to find a sustainable rhythm.


Grey, white and black all at the same time

Simply going beyond viewing problems as binary and identifying shades of grey isn’t really sufficient in today’s environment.  Instead, try finding positive synergies between apparently competing priorities and replace tension with mutually-supporting objectives. For example, if customer service and product development are competing for funds, you find ways to funnel customer feedback directly to development teams to improve their products and reduce development costs. 

Riding the waves of change

Rising above the clutter and connecting disparate events, discovering patterns, and anticipating distant threats and opportunities is a vital skill for staying ahead of complexity. Develop ‘ripple intelligence’ – this will give you a vantage point so you can look down and see how all the forces combine. It’s about joining the dots to forge a clear path through complex issues and map out a response. 

Heidrick & Struggles