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James D. Murphy
James D. Murphy

Complexity: The Execution Challenge You Don't See

When you think of the word 'complex', do you ever think about what it has to do with project execution? Ask a management consulting firm to define 'complex' and you'll get a response like "well, it's a concept that can affect your life, your family, your team and your organization." That's because consultants understand that complexity lies in every aspect of strategic planning, whether at home or in the workplace, and that complexity is a concept that needs to be clearly understood in order to anticipate and overcome execution challenges.

The Oxford English Dictionary has three separate entries for the word 'complex'. But in general use it is defined as: intricate, not easily analyzed or disentangled. We live in a highly complex world and while we have a general understanding of the complexity with which we approach execution challenges, for the most part, our human brains are not wired to comprehend the intricate concepts needed for strategic planning. But with outside management consulting, companies often see that it is easier to understand the complex architecture of cause and effect.

Simplicity vs. Complexity

From our day-to-day perspective, simple and complicated things are things we create or conceive. A knife is simple. A bicycle is relatively simple. We can look at all its parts and see how it operates. You might need to understand some basic physics to understand how a bicycle's gear shift works, but that is a relatively simple concept for humans to grasp. But when it comes to comprehending the inner workings of strategic planning and its role in execution, these become complexities that are difficult to grasp - a fact that management consulting firms are well aware of.

We know that manufacturing processes are complicated, and even bureaucratic processes are complicated. And just consider how complicated legal processes are. But we also know that none of these simple or complicated things creates anything greater than itself. The whole of an outcome realized through strategic planning is only equal to the sum of its parts. Without a rider, the bicycle is just an organized set of parts. Without litigation and judgment, legal execution and the enactment of laws are nothing more than ink on a page. Management consulting firms understand that human systems create something greater than their individual components. Consider the global economy - it appears to be just billions of individual people toiling away in some haphazard manner. But that global economy, as wildly unpredictable as it may be, is a complex system, reliant upon consistent execution achieved by strategic planning through a number of human variables.

When we were taught history in school, most of us probably saw human history as a sequence of causes and effects. But the world is not like a line of dominoes in which one topples to cause another to topple, then another and then another - instead, the real world is non-linear. By that we mean that the chain of cause and effect feeds back upon itself to perpetuate more change. When educating clients about complexity, management consulting firms understand that foreseeing the ultimate execution of such non-linear cause and effect interactions within strategic planning is either impossible or simply exceeds our human capacity to comprehend. Every cause is the sum of countless effects and every effect is the sum of countless causes. Cause and effect become indistinguishable from one another. We must relinquish our linear view of the world and embrace its complex wholeness. We must view the world as a complex interdependent system.

If it weren't for complexity, all our challenges and strategic planning problems could be reduced to manageable and highly predictable processes that we could shape to achieve the execution we desire. But complexity is an integral aspect of life itself - a concept that management consulting firms impart to help corporate clients understand how to approach complexity in the workplace.

Complexity Directly Affects Business Leaders

IBM conducted a survey of over 1,500 global CEOs and other leaders and in 2010, and produced a report entitled Capitalizing on Complexity in which the first of its four primary findings identified the following: "Today's complexity is only expected to rise, and more than half of CEOs doubt their ability to manage it (1)." Leaders often identify complexity as such an issue in execution, but businesses can leverage a management consulting firm to manage the intricacies of strategic planning to embrace and manage complexity.

Peter Senge, in his groundbreaking management book The Fifth Discipline, challenges us to see the world as a whole, to see the "subtle interconnectedness that gives living systems their unique character (2)." He challenges us to see our world, and our business execution, as part of systems and as systems themselves. The interplay of cause and effect in strategic planning is dizzying and in our limited comprehension, appears chaotic and has far-ranging consequences. Managing complexity, though difficult, is not impossible (at least in the short term) and management consulting firms teach clients how to prepare for unpredictable environments. At best, we can only anticipate change, plan for it, and respond wisely when it surprises us.

The Rate of Change is Increasing

If the science of complexity teaches us one thing, it is that our human world will always remain unpredictable. As the level of complexity continues to increase, the rate of change increases - making managing strategic planning to achieve execution more difficult. It is this speed of change that both confounds and excites organizations all over the world, and prompts companies to seek management consulting to build a forward-looking strategy. It confounds because only highly energetic and creative organizations can keep up with the pace of change. It is exhausting and worrisome. But constant and rapid change also means that there are more and more opportunities available to those ready to seize them and take action.

And yet, it's astounding how people tend to think that management consulting concepts and strategic planning are linear processes. The array of business publications available on bookshelves today demonstrates this thirst for linear execution and computable certainty. It's as if the majority of people believe that there is some mystical set of rules that, if we knew them, would guarantee success. But, there can be no single process or set of rules that can guarantee anything in complex systems. However, management consulting firms can equip companies with a set of process tools and principles that enable successful adaptation within unpredictable complex systems.

Management consulting companies teach simple holistic process to help us harness strategic planning in order to achieve execution within these modern, rapidly changing, globally-connected systems. One of the most important things to realize is that we and the organizations we form are constantly interacting with other complex systems. Complex systems are ubiquitous. And as far as decision-making and problem-solving is concerned, this simple fact tends to cause some very serious planning problems.


Surviving and thriving in a world increasingly dominated by the capricious effects of interacting complex systems requires rapid adaptability - a concept that management consulting firms have embraced, and teach to companies to help them achieve execution through strategic planning. We are all perpetually engaged in a fight with disruptive, unpredictable change. The organization that can most rapidly anticipate, process, and adapt to that change wins the battle of maneuvers. Call it what you will - maneuverability, adaptability, or agility - winning requires a fundamental understanding of the effects of interactions within and between complex systems in our companies and organizations to achieve success.

Works Cited

1. Capitalizing on Complexity. IBM Corporation 2010. Pg 8.

2. Peter Senge, The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization. 2006 pg. 69.

About the Author

As the founder and CEO of Afterburner, Inc., James D. Murphy has a unique, powerful mix of leadership skills in both the military and business worlds. After graduating from the University of Kentucky, Murphy joined the U.S. Air Force where he learned to fly the F-15, logging over 1,200 hours as an instructor pilot in the F-15 and accumulating over 3,200 hours of flight time in other high-performance jet aircraft. He has also flown missions to Central America, Asia, Central Europe and the Middle East. As Afterburner's leadership keynote speaker, Murphy has helped top business leaders transform strategy into action by showing that the concepts of the Flawless Execution(SM) model could be applied to business process improvement and engaging the proven model - "Plan. Brief. Execute. Debrief." Murphy has been regularly featured in such publications as The Wall Street Journal, BusinessWeek, and Newsweek, and has appeared on CNN, Fox News, and Bloomberg News to name a few. For more information on Afterburner, Inc., please visit

This entry was published on Apr 18, 2011 / James D. Murphy. Posted in Project Management, Soft Skills, Leadership & Management. Bookmark the Permalink or E-mail it to a friend.
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