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Larry Stapleton

Larry Stapleton

23rd Nov 2022

Managing in the Age of Complexity | Dr Larry Stapleton

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Pedro Angulo: Driving success through succession
Paddy Barr: Make succession your legacy as a leader

Managing in the Age of Complexity

“For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong” – H.L. Menken.

We live in an age of increasing complexity, with many leaders finding themselves and their organisations experiencing life at the ‘edge of chaos.’ All too often leaders don’t know where to focus or pay attention as they adapt to a world that is both increasingly uncertain, random and unstable, whilst also more interconnected, diverse and interdependent – a far cry from the world most leaders have come from.

Much of our traditional management thinking emerged from a relatively stable and predictable business, social and political world. This is a world suited to scientific management theories and traditional systems thinking which are often top-down solutions enforced through a hierarchy of relationships, e.g. ‘command and control.’ This system, which was designed for a stable world and totally unsuited to systematic complexity, is changing in fundamental ways. Indeed, we have now entered the early stages of the Age of Complexity, which represents a paradigm shift for our civilisation. The sense of chaos is evidence of this.

While the edge of chaos poses conundrums, it also offers opportunities.

A feature of organisations that thrive at the edge of chaos is that they understand – either explicitly or intuitively – how complexity works. In a complex world, local agents must adapt and learn to find solutions. Many need to become “complex” themselves, or else find a small niche where things may not change too much and cross their fingers.

Let’s focus on one aspect of our complex world: diversity. The external diversity dial has turned right up, but the digital and internal organisational diversity dials too often remain low. Despite the digital promise, a weak spot has emerged for many digitally-enabled businesses – an “Achilles Heel for Digital Transformation.” Namely, that digital currently reinforces gender biases and marginalisation.

AI and digital bias are caused by multiple factors (lack of diversity in development teams, insufficiently diverse training sets, nominal linkage issues, commercial ‘black boxes’ such as insufficient transparency and explainability, etc), but the end-result is the same: the unconscious bias and unfairness designed into digital systems and services systematically alienates important customer and citizen groups. Thus, organisations that don’t engage in digital diversity and inclusion best practices will fall foul of emerging European and National diversity and inclusion regulation.

But here lies opportunities, not just conundrums. Understanding this “Digital Achilles Heel” and paying attention to the “diversity dial” does two things:

  • Exposes a serious social-sustainability business vulnerability embodied in our digital systems.
  • Opens up exciting opportunities (competitive advantage, sustainability to name two).

Organisations that embody digital diversity and inclusion turn the diversity dial into a leadership opportunity. These digitally-enabled business allies think a lot about the digital customer experience and proactively fix problems at a systems level before they arise. These organisations constantly monitor and review data processing and analytics systems for prejudicial assumptions about customers, staff or other stakeholders and react quickly to address system and related problems.

They create new benchmarks which set new standards for digital social sustainability, firing up and inspiring others to do the same, employing digital systems development practices which embody diversity and inclusion in their DNA. These organisations employ a diverse digital leadership who appreciate the impact of digital bias on people and communities and empathise with those feel marginalised, actively engaging them instead.

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