Complexity

Last night I dreamed I was standing in my kitchen in bare feet surrounded by broken glass, calling rather pathetically for my husband to come help me. The dream also featured a swiftly rising river and an old man who lived in a hobbit house. It was a dream, okay? This morning, standing in my mercifully glass-free kitchen waiting for my coffee to brew I decided the dream wasn’t about my marriage or old men in hobbit houses, but about work.  That broken glass represents all the ways I can mess up some pretty fantastic processes and relationships in my attempt to fix some rather glaring challenges. The hobbit house was just for atmosphere.

This is the challenge of managing teams and programs well: they are complex, and we risk stepping on broken glass when we make changes, doing damage we didn’t intend while simply trying to move forward through a challenging environment. The complexity comes primarily from the fact that teams and programs are made up of people, and people are dynamic things. You cannot always predict how a change here will impact a relationship there, or how a process introduced today will impact an output next month. You try to predict these things, but the reality of complexity is that you can’t fully understand the system well enough to play-out all the results – desired and undesired – of your actions.

It is tempting to think of our projects and the teams that run them as machines. Projects have tasks and processes and outputs, things machines handle pretty well. But I’m not sure in the history of people we have ever benefitted from thinking of people as machines, so I am going to resist that temptation. I think we should instead envision teams and projects as ecosystems, and ourselves as ecologists who try to manage them. NPR was reporting this morning on Zika prevention in Florida, and the proposed release of two different kinds of mosquitos: one, genetically modified Aedes aegypti males whose offspring die; and two, normal male mosquitos infected with a naturally occurring (harmful to insects) bacteria whose offspring also die. The people of Florida seem more comfortable with the second option, and I can understand why: there is less mucking about with things we don’t understand, and thus the potential for deep and unanticipated blowback is lessened. They hope.

My particular environmental challenge is less dire than the introduction of genetically modified mosquitos, but it does involve two continents, over a dozen people, and at least twice that number of interacting, valid priorities. And opinions. There is no shortage of opinions. Like the ecologists, entomologists, and epidemiologists looking at Zika in Florida, I have to consider how my actions will impact not just the one thing I touch, but the things that thing touches, and the things those things touch, today and next week. And I should act fast, because our work matters. But I should be patient, because one shouldn’t act until one understands the environment and the problem. Sometimes that waiting, that observation of the problem (the local flora and fauna, I suppose) is the hardest and most important part: doing nothing but watch while your people struggle with complexity. Thankfully this is just management, not the fragile ecosystem of the Florida Keys. And if I do it wrong, and make decisions that have unanticipated impacts, I can probably call for my team and they’ll help me sweep up the broken glass.

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