Managing Complexity: Three focus areas for success

Aug 06, 2019 |Posted by Jared Simmons | Coaching

When you read the qualifications in a job description, where do you start? Most of us start with education and experience. Ultimately, however, success in modern management roles is about how well you manage complexity. Here are three focus areas that have helped me effectively manage complexity without the expected education and experience. You can do it too.

Why management skills matter

Overestimating the importance of relevant education and experience produces managers that are skilled in the art they manage but lack important management skills. In today’s work environment, the problems we’re solving in different functions at the managerial level are not as different as they seem.  Managers in Finance, R&D, Sales, Supply Chain and Marketing are all trying to deliver maximum impact from available resources.  The resources managed in each area vary dramatically but, at some point, subject matter expertise and past experience become less valuable than management skills.

This is particularly problematic in technical professions, where outstanding scientists are often rewarded with new expectations (managing others) and less time in their area of expertise (the work itself).  Some new managers adapt; most don’t. Sustainable success in management roles requires skills beyond those that made us stand out in the first place.

Three focus areas for success

I’ve been a manager in various industries across Supply Chain, Market Research, Product Development, Strategy Consulting, and Project Management. As a result, I’ve managed people who had much deeper functional knowledge and expertise. I’ve been fortunate enough to earn their respect by delivering results and focusing on three things:

  1. Productive Inquiry – Asking questions that move things forward. Focusing on what needs to be understood or completed to make the next step toward our shared goal.
  2. Pattern Recognition – Maintaining a broad view of not just the work itself, but how my team (and the teams we interact with) go about the work. Recognizing patterns in data, communication styles, and decision-making criteria, for example, allow the experts to do what they do best with less rework and fewer “political” issues to slow down the work of solving the problem.
  3. Progressive Action – It’s one thing to have a project plan. It’s another to painstakingly review each action involved to make sure that it’s critical to meeting the objective on time. Regressive action–rework, revisiting decisions (with no new data or external change), and reviews/updates without decisions or action steps–rob the team of the energy and enthusiasm needed to do the work that actually creates progress.


I learned that if I asked the right questions, identified underlying patterns in data and behavior, and maintained a bias for progress in each task, I could help any organization do anything.

What managing complexity well means for your career

Focusing on these areas enhances the skill that makes you invaluable to your managers and your team–managing complexity.  Managing complexity is all about being able to absorb the complexity and chaos around you while operating with clarity and focus.  This is simple, but not easy.  It is a skill valued in C-suite executives but not actively cultivated and coached in front line knowledge workers and “middle” managers.

Complexity, then, grows as information moves up the ladder. Leaders farthest from the work are left to try to simplify things.  Valuable insights are lost and misinformed decisions are made.

The most valuable knowledge workers have the best filters. They take in all of the information and pass along only what matters most.

People are naturally drawn to colleagues who make it easier to get things done. Focus on these three areas and you’ll soon be seen as a person that others want to work with.

How do you manage complexity and chaos in your work today?

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Jared Simmons

Jared is the founder of Outlast Consulting LLC, a consulting firm that helps individuals and organizations with strategy, process improvement, and professional development. He is an engineer by training with experience in market research, product development, innovation, management consulting, and strategic planning at P&G, McKinsey, and Coca-Cola.


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