The Quest for Elegance: Diagnosing Complexity


By Tom Swanson, Engagement Manager at Heinz Marketing

Across every client, every company, and every team, there is a constant struggle between complexity and simplicity.  The function is straightforward: output = tools + teams x strategy.  Business school taught me well, you could put that in a textbook.

However, things rarely work as well in practice as they do in Operations 301 books.  A change to any of the variables in that equation causes waves throughout teams.  The bigger the change, the more complex things get.  This is all easy cause-and-effect.

What isn’t so easy is how you fix it.  Complexity is an insidious foe, often not recognized as a problem until it is.  It burns out your people, turns your tools into expensive paperweights, and is a torpedo for otherwise great strategy.

Complexity is unavoidable.  It is a natural product of growth, but it must be managed.  It is normal for a team to begin simply, get more complex as it develops, and then rework itself back to simplicity.  The trick is that peeling away those things that make a system complex without damaging the output is exceedingly difficult.

A client once shared a quote with me that summed this up very well:

“For the simplicity on this side of complexity, I wouldn’t give you a fig. But for the simplicity on the other side of complexity, for that I would give you anything I have.” – Oliver Wendell Holmes

The word for a simplicity on the other side of complexity is “elegance”.  It is one of the best words in the English language.  I am passionate about elegant systems and solutions.

As this is a marketing blog, I will couch these ideas in marketing context.  However, any business problem could benefit from an eye for elegance.

Diagnosing Complexity

If you are ready to get elegant, it begins with getting critical.  As I mentioned before, complexity is insidious.  As a natural product of growth, it must always be managed.  Doing that requires some visibility into how the team operates and where the complexity is highest at the time.

How you get this visibility depends on what you are feeling.  Luckily, we can refer to the equation above to get started.  It doesn’t cover all of the possible complexity variables, but it gets most of the big ones.

Here are some of the things we look for and what we would create to help better understand it:

Tool Complexity

This is the easiest one.  Teams will layer tools on as use cases arise.  New leaders often bring in a bevvy of new tools.  Individuals may seek out their own accounts to make their lives easier.  If everything plays nice, then we are all set (Scott Brinker pointed out that integration capability is the most important thing to Martech buyers).   That is just often not the case, though.

Rigidity is also a risk here, as adhering too closely to specific use-cases ignores the flexibility required in business.  People take one look at that complex system and say “no thanks”, and just go directly to the source.

When we are looking to diagnose and solve tool complexity, we build these things:

  1. A map of all the tools used by the team and the use cases they serve
  2. An ecosystem chart showing how information and work flows between tools
    • And, where work-arounds occur
  3. A RACI indicating ownership and responsibility across the tools

The crucial part of building these is to talk to the people using the tools.  Go past management and talk directly to the individual contributors.  The folks actually doing the work will have the best perspective into where the complexity is.

If things are confusing to look at, then we have found our issue.

Team Complexity

At this level, complexity can sprout from a bunch of different places.  Roles/responsibilities might not be clear, team processes may differ, prioritization across teams might not be handled the same.  Whatever the case, it is often more of an issue of how teams communicate and collaborate.  Too complex of an ecosystem means teams don’t know who is doing what and where the boundaries are.

This is the most difficult one to solve, and it causes many symptoms.  Here are a few:

  1. Approval delays – You might call this a “process problem”, but it is a team one. It usually stems from a fear of liability and an extreme focus on accountability.
  2. Cross-functional burn-out – If teams from different functions are all burning out, it is time to talk with them.
  3. Backtracking – Completed work getting pulled back into production is a backtracking issue. This is usually caused by a lack of clarity in ownership and/or timing.

Teams are tricky, but here are some mapping tools that can help identify where issues are:

  1. A workflow for how work moves from team to team with gated checks for when approval is needed (don’t overdo the approvals, trust is required).
  2. Org charts offer a great way to map out all of the teams and make it clear who sits where. This doesn’t solve problems, but it is important context that supports other solutions.  The exercise itself can be enlightening if leaders disagree on the structure.
  3. Stress-testing. We normally recommend doing this after the previous 2 items are mapped.  This will help you find out where complexity is stemming from in the flow.

Finally, and as before, the best way to begin this process is to talk to the individual contributors.  You will see a pattern here with this advice.  Any good change needs to engage the people actually doing the work from the earliest phase all the way through.

Strategy Complexity

Everyone has thoughts to add to the strategy.  While many of the great strategies are simple, many others are complex.  Too simple a strategy limits growth, too complex… also limits growth.

The goal of a strategy is to provide a framework for tactical leaders to make decisions.  That is it.  Every option is a trade-off (see: opportunity cost), and your tactical leaders need to know how to weigh and make those decisions.

So, when looking for strategic complexity, the best way to go is to look at how decisions get made.

  1. Decision maps – Can your teams map out how they make decisions within the strategy?
  2. Document usage – How frequently does your strategic documentation get referenced?
  3. Interviews – What does your team have to say about how the strategy supports their ability to make decisions?

Understanding why tactical leaders are making the decisions they are can give you a sense for if your strategy aligns with reality in the field or not.  If there are good, logical reasons for deviations from strategy, then it might be worthwhile to adjust.

More common, though, is that the strategy (and related documentation) provides insufficient guidance for tactical decision-making.  The resulting complaint from strategic leadership is: “I wish we were less reactive and more proactive”.  Sound familiar?

Bonus: Change Complexity

One little bonus section here is about change.  This isn’t part of our equation above, but it bears thinking about.  Change management is a crucial part of any business because change is tiring.  The more complex and frequent the changes, the more tired your people will get.

Fatigue begets failure.

If you are reading this and got this far, it is plausible you are looking to change some things.  Start by looking at what changes are already happening.  If there are active change efforts now, try to understand them.  How are they going?  Are they on schedule?  What issues are coming up?

Then, talk to your teams.  Ask them about their feelings on the changes.  Apprehension is normal, frustration is normal, even a little anger is normal.  However, if they are feeling these things, adding another change on top will push the levels of each past the healthy point.

In that case, wait.  Change is inherently complex.  Even if the change itself is simple, people have complex feelings on the matter.

The best way to keep change simple is to limit how much of it is going on at any one time.

Bureaucracy Eleganza

Most of what we have defined here would be considered bureaucracy.  I am for it, honestly, because I think bureaucracy gets a bad reputation for its goal of protecting entities from liability.

Elegant bureaucracy is critical for supporting scale.

Systems need scaffolding in order to operate, and people need structure to be effective.  Don’t fear the bureaucrat, bring them in and engage them in helping you structure your teams, tools, and strategies in such a way that they support the people doing the work.

If you want to talk more about this, as always, I am available at

Happy bureaucrating!