Almost Chaos. Thriving Amid Complexity and Uncertainty

By: Jonathan Sapir

The word “chaos” sends chills up the spine of most communication services business and operational leaders. However, wherever one looks in today’s market and for the foreseeable future, there is nothing but rapid change, increased complexity, and unpredictability on the horizon.

The current business landscape looks chaotic. Even the most agile individuals and organizations, however, cannot effectively operate and certainly cannot scale amid chaos. Processes and operational structures are needed, but traditional business processes and project management strategies are not well-suited to the current climate.

Many organizations assume that project and operational problems are due to a lack of skill and knowledge. Consequently, the most common approaches to this are training, education, and hiring experienced project managers and team leaders. The rationale is that greater numbers of intelligent and driven professionals will be capable of juggling the complexity and readjusting whenever unexpected events occur.  

While more bodies and increasing skill levels and capabilities are important priorities for any company, they are not a solution. Instead, the project system itself must be better able to absorb and seamlessly respond to uncertainty, sudden changes, and complexity.

To create systems nimble enough to respond to disruption and unpredictability, though, the challenge at hand must be better understood.

Inefficient projects vs. ineffective processes

Most organizations create projects led by project managers to bring order and structure to work. The Project Management Institute (PMI) defines a project as a temporary endeavor to create a unique product, service, or result. So, if the effort is a one-time occurrence, never to be repeated, it is a project according to this definition.

But most communications services companies have “projects” that are not temporary, one-off affairs. Rather they repeat, like the procedures for building out a new fiber network or implementing new products and services at a customer site. These projects aren’t actual projects at all; they are processes that are managed as projects.

What’s more, some level of inefficiency is allowed in projects because they are unique undertakings that will not be repeated. After all, the project is not recurring, so any introduced inefficiencies should be notated, and learnings applied to the next project.

However, inefficiencies in operational business projects that are actually repeated processes can be wildly detrimental to the health and profitability of an organization, not to mention its ability to effectively respond when confronted with the unexpected.

Complicated or complex?

Complexity is a commonly used word, but surprisingly few people understand the difference between “complex” and “complicated.”

A complexity worldview sees organizations and the world as interconnected forms and patterns that have been shaped by history and context. A complexity perspective acknowledges limits to certainty, emphasizes that things are in a continual process of “becoming,” and that there is potential for the unexpected to be rich with opportunity.

A system can be complicated but not necessarily complex. A complicated system is one in which the components can be separated and dealt with systematically and logically based on rules and algorithms. A complicated system may be hard to follow and may have many steps, but there’s a fixed order a team of experts can manage.


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