Making the Complex Simple

I have been giving a lot of thought lately to simplicity versus complexity.

There is no question that organisations such as universities are complex entities. I believe the Burke-Litwin (1) model of organisational performance is interesting for organisational developers because it emphasises the importance of transformational, transactional and personal elements that inform organisational performance within an ever-changing external environment.

Organisational development is often about operating in the spaces between functions and different types of people. It is about making connections between the individual and the organisational in ways that benefit both. To me the interesting bit of the Burke-Litwin model is what we can do within the arrows that join all the model’s elements.

We need to have the comfort to live within this complexity, to tolerate ambiguity, to do the research, to interact with people and to test evidence – for instance by connecting structures, practices and systems to leadership and organisational strategy – all to see if changes we make or work to influence provide the results our organisation is looking for. And as we do this, we need to test what we believe our priorities should be. In today’s world with its ever increasing volumes of information and changing technology but with no more hours in anyone’s day, getting results on what matters becomes increasingly important so we need to finish with, not ten priorities, but maybe just one or two to actively focus on.

And why are fewer priorities better?

Simple can be harder than complex: You have to work hard to get your thinking clean to make it simple. But it’s worth it in the end because once you get there, you can move mountains.” Steve Jobs

Moving mountains and getting results in the service of higher level goals for our institutions – isn’t that the ambition of all of us who work in organisational development? And this ambition is worth the effort to make the complex simple, a bright and beautiful whole that is greater than the sum of its parts.
By Cindy Vallance
Head of Organisational Development, University of Kent
Twitter @cdvallance

(1)Burke, W. Warner and Litwin, George H. “A Causal Model of Organizational Performance and Change,” Journal of Management, 1992 (Vol.18, No. 3, 523-545).

2 thoughts on “Making the Complex Simple

  1. Cindy, you are so right, that simple is best. How to get there in our context is very challenging though. In academia I find simplicity is not valued as much as clever, complex methods which make sure every angle is considered. Our OD values can help here I think, reminding people that ‘feelings are ligitimate’, so lets work with what we feel, rather than theoretical approaches which don’t necessarily acknowledge the personal. That could be a route to simplicity, however, my refection here might be a bit simple!

  2. Hi Helen – I absolutely agree – models must be made real and values and behaviours that form the core of OD mind sets such as collaboration, transparency, respect, trust and dignity must play a part when considering organisational performance.

    It sometimes happens that the ‘what’ that needs to be done within our organisations neglects the importance of ‘how’ we do it. Accepting and responding to human emotions, are, after all, not ‘soft’ skills at all and, try as some might to remove them, feelings are a natural part of the workplace.

    For instance, we had a conversation in a meeting this past week about ‘perceptions’ and ‘reality.’ We discussed the need to agreed that perceptions ARE reality for the individual who has them and are therefore neither right nor wrong. We need to listen, understand why, and then work together to address – whether perceptions are good or bad.

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