Bridgeway Partners Blog

Learning to Manage Complexity – 4 Tools

In last month’s blog post, “The Challenge of Managing Complexity – 5 Strategies”, we looked at five strategies for managing complexity: thinking differently about managing complexity, thinking about collaboration as an investment, thinking differently about what makes people productive, holding firm to a limited number of priorities, and organization redesign.

In this post we will describe four tools for managing complexity:

  1. Negotiating SMART agreements
  2. Clarifying multiple roles
  3. Managing communication channels wisely: meetings and email
  4. Breaking down priorities into manageable time frames
Negotiate SMART Agreements

As we saw recently in the blog post “The Challenge of Digesting Complexity”, complexity and overload often go hand-in-hand. Faced with the expectation to do as much as we can as quickly as we can to solve complex problems, we make too many agreements that we cannot keep.

Here are some guidelines for negotiating agreements you can reliably keep:

  • Say “Yes” to requests that meet the following criteria:
  • They are either congruent with your goals or help you build social capital towards meeting those goals.
  • They are SMART in that: the details of what is being asked for are Specific; standards for success are Measureable; the request is Attainable; the context for the request is clear and Relevant; and it is Time-limited with a deadline and dates for mid-course correction.
  • Offer alternatives to an unequivocal “Yes” that best honor the other person’s needs as well as your capacity:
  • Ask for clarification to ensure a SMART request
  • Offer to check your resources and get back to the requester in a specified amount  of time
  • Make a counter-offer that you believe can still meet the requester’s needs
  • Clarify the tradeoffs you see and jointly problem-solve an alternative
  • If none of these alternatives are feasible, say “No – because I’d rather turn you down than let you down”
Clarify Multiple Roles

Another way in which complexity manifests is in ambiguity about roles, i.e. who is accountable for driving project implementation, who is responsible for making which decisions, and in what ways are other people going to be involved. Often, many people have to be involved and need to clarify how they will be involved.

Accountability and decision charting are tools that can be used to clarify multiple roles in project implementation and decision-making respectively.[i] Both operate under the premise that people are more able to support projects and decisions that brought them up front into the role clarification process.

Accountability charting begins with people vesting one individual or group with the authority to drive implementation of a specific goal or project on their behalf. This is the accountable (A) person or group. Roles in addition to the one accountable include those with approval or veto power (OK to be used only if required to meet legal, political, or fiscal obligations), those needed to support (S) implementation of the project, consultants (C) to the project, and those who have to be informed (I) of the project’s progress.

Decision charting uses similar role definitions with two exceptions. Instead of one accountable person or group, there are one or more decision makers and a decision manager. The exact number of decision makers (D) is as few as possible to make decisions efficiently and as many as necessary to ensure quality and support for implementation. The decision manager (M) ensures that the decision is made in a timely way. All the other roles are the same as those used for accountability charting.

Manage Communication Channels Wisely: Meetings and Email

Frequent communication is required to manage complexity effectively. Meetings, whether face-to-face or virtual, and email are two of our most common forms of communication. While many guidelines exist to use these channels as productively as possible, it is remarkable how inconsistently they are followed.[ii]

Manage meetings as small projects. This begins with doing extensive planning to design the meeting (a ratio of 2-3 times as much time as required for the meeting itself): use this time to clarify the purpose of the meeting, agenda items with intended results and estimated times for each, participants to engage, and materials required. The meetings themselves should: provide time for agenda review, check-in, and debrief; have clear roles for facilitator, timekeeper, and recorder; actively include all participants in conversation; and move people towards actionable conclusions where appropriate. Follow-up should also be included as a clear next step. While many meetings today are virtual, kickoff meetings at a minimum are still best done face-to-face to establish a strong foundation for both working relationships and project structure.

Email guidelines include:

  • Focus on your strategic priorities for the day before answering e-mail
  • Limit times during the day to check e-mail
  • Filter messages quickly, e.g.: discard, respond immediately, prepare more complex response, read
  • Use subject line protocols to speed up communication
  • Do not write a message when you are upset nor use e-mail for sensitive communications
Break Down Priorities into Manageable Time Frames

Finally, complexity challenges people’s ability to focus. To help people focus, concentrate resources on achieving a limited number of priorities over shorter periods of time rather than many priorities over longer periods. For example, people can accomplish 3 priorities in 6 months more easily than 6 priorities in 12 months because it is easier for them to focus on only 3 priorities at a time. Another technique is to break down each priority into manageable work increments and protect time in your calendar to focus on these increments.

An Invitation

Many organizations are challenged by balance their aspirations to make the world a better place and their appreciation of complexity with their capacity to digest complexity in practical terms. Here at Bridgeway Partners we support aspiration-driven organizations to reduce chronic overload and increase sustainable productivity by helping people develop new strategies and tools for managing complexity. We welcome learning about your own experience in aligning your aspirations, understanding of complexity, and capacity to manage it.

[i] The tools as defined here were developed by Innovation Associates, though other versions of both exist.

[ii] See for example, Michael Doyle and David Straus, How to Make Meetings Work! (Jove, 1976) and Sarah Green Carmichael, 8 Ways Not to Manage Your Email (and 5 and a Half Tactics that Work), (, 2014, April 11)

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