Complexity in the Workplace

Complexity is part of our world, and the workplace is no exception. Mergers, expanding a workforce from two to nine and then ninety, changes in regulations, new technology: All of these change the way work is done and can be challenging to implement, even when they're done right.

It helps to think of a workplace as a system. Components of the system are the people (workers, clients, suppliers, consultants, regulators), regulatory agencies, technological systems, products, and so on. Even small changes can affect the whole system. When the system is very large, like, say, a university, a government agency, or an international corporation, the impacts can be magnified and seem overwhelming.

Often, an organization’s leaders don’t put enough emphasis on understanding its systems. When change occurs in one component, that lack of understanding leads to an inability to communicate effectively about how it will affect the organization, leading to loss of morale and, ultimately, trust within the workforce—arguably the organization’s most important asset.

Diagram of someone visualizing the complexity of their organization

Understand your system. Diagram it out. You might need help with this--get it! Even better, make it a team building exercise. Give members of your organization the opportunity to own part of the outcome. And once you think you've nailed it, communicate it clearly. Revisit as often as you need to--changes will continue to be part of our complex world, so embrace them as gracefully as possible and get your team to do the same.

Visualizing Complexity: Why Does it Matter?

Edward Tufte, author of numerous works on representing data graphically, gives a chilling example in the day-long workshop he's been running for years. Engineers working on the Challenger space shuttle mission failed to convince NASA that the lower temperatures expected on the planned launch date, and the possible failure of the o-rings, would constitute an unacceptable level of risk. They had data, they had graphs, they had diagrams of o-rings, but the launch went ahead. As we all know, the Challenger exploded.

What if their presentation had instead featured a graphic like this?

Challenger disaster visual of risk of low temperature

(Tufte proposed a simple, elegant graph that showed the likelihood of o-ring failure in direct proportion to dropping temperatures. In all communication, understanding your audience is key.)

Consider something complex but not quite as distressing: the map of the London Underground. In 1931 Harry Beck, a former employee of the Underground, produced this map, still recognizable to us almost 100 years later:

London Underground map from 1931 by Harry Beck

Earlier maps had followed the city's geography more closely, which is not relevant if you're traveling underground. Subway maps around the world have been modeled on London's, giving passengers information about transfer points and the number of stations between them and omitting extraneous geographical detail.

Mapping the human genome, mapping complaints, mapping where items are found in the aisles of grocery stores: maps are visual tools that can help clarify complexity.

Next week: What complexities are found in your organization, and how might they be made visible so as to render them more understandable?

Complexity, Visualized

A few years ago, when the avian influenza epidemic raised urgent red flags about the potential for a global flu pandemic, I was working at the UC Davis Wildlife Health Center. The epidemiologists there were working to understand the systems that could trigger such a pandemic and determine what steps might be taken to avoid one.

A major concern for scientists, health personnel, and policymakers is that influenza viruses mutate easily and can even jump species. They are complex systems, they are highly adaptive, and their trajectory is not predictable. With so many people in the world keeping poultry and other livestock near wildlife, and with rapid global travel so common, one of these mutations can become deadly enough to kill people and then spread quickly. Communicating the danger inherent in such a complex system is made easier by the use of graphics: it's easy to follow the flow and trajectory.

Drawing of the trajectory of the spread of a deadly disease

We live in a complex world. How can it be understood more easily with the help of a graphic recorder? Next up, we'll look at the visualization of different complex systems.