On Complexity

Complexity is understood to be an omnipresent underlying challenge in any IT organization, but what exactly is complexity and how should it be managed in order to maximize the effectiveness of IT? The answers to such questions are in themselves complex.

Just how complex is complexity? A quick lookup of the word “complex” at dictionary.com produces 13 definitions. If a word in and of itself is so difficult to nail down that it requires 13 different ways to define it, the abstract concept behind the word is presumably no cakewalk either. This is precisely the case with “complexity.”

While complexity may imply difficulty, and indeed the two words do seem interchangeable when applied to managing information technology and information systems, it is important to differentiate the applicability of the words. It can be argued that complexity and difficulty are both relative terms, but for the sake of understanding complexity it should be viewed as a more quantitative concept than difficulty; complexity implies a multidimensional representation of the elements and relationships contained within a finite context, and difficulty refers more to the ability of an entity to achieve a desired outcome.

When complexity is cited as a reason for failure to meet criteria or realize an objective, what is actually implied is that the failure was predicated on the inability of an individual or group to overcome the relative difficulty of mastering the complexity of a problem in order to achieve a successful outcome. The logical response to this is to assign the task to an individual or team that can navigate the complexity of the circumstance to achieve the desired results, in which case the relative difficulty for such a situation would be diminished. The other option is to lower expectations of the assignment, which is self defeating and does not warrant further discussion.

A methodical approach to addressing complexity in any form is to first understand the elements that comprise a complex situation, system, or environment. Once the individual elements have been identified, the challenge is then to logically separate the elements and view them in a disaggregated manner. After each element has been broken down to its core function and its intricacies have been analyzed, it is then necessary to identify the relationships between the elements, taking note of interdependencies, commonality, balance, and relevance to the whole. The final step is to reassemble the elements in a manner that optimizes understanding and manageability.

While this process does not necessarily reduce complexity, it does enable understanding of complex subjects, which is a fundamental prerequisite to any activity or initiative intended to minimize actual complexity within a given context. To reduce complexity is to reduce the number of (or the influence of) elements contained within a specific context; to manage complexity is to understand it and minimize its impact by incorporating it into a framework of effective holistic management. There is no reason to fear complexity or to deem it too difficult to overcome; complexity is simply a fact of life in the world of managing information technology and information systems, and should be viewed as an opportunity to improve effectiveness rather than an insurmountable obstacle.

Mike Topalovich Salesforce Technical Architect in Chicago
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