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Increasing Complexity

by Mira Vlach on July 26, 2007:

Summary: Increasing complexity can become a serious problem if it gets so complicated, that it actually restrains you from any meaningful action. Such a situation is usually predictable and can be resolved much more easily beforehand.

From time to time I see a situation when an individual or an organisation gets into serious trouble because of uncontrolled increased complexity. Complexity does not have to be a problem as long as its growth is balanced with our growing ability to handle it, for example due to the learned experience.

However, once it starts getting out of control, you need to deal with it as soon as possible. The timely solution costs only a fraction of the effort that would be required to deal with the escalated situation later.

How to recognise problems with increasing complexity

The above mentioned problems are often the result of ever-rising workload or the rise of something that is the subject of your work. It can also develop if you have to deal with a task you have no experience with.

Having a feeling that your hands are bound by repetitive activities or that the current situation gets either chaotic or less effective is a good indicator of incoming problems. By this time the situation might be reaching the limits of your strenght or abilities. In such case one needs to assess if he faces a short-term manageable situation or a long-term trend. However, the right assessment isn't easy once you are already overworked.

Here are a few examples of problems with increasing complexity:

Remedial action

Realising that you have a problem is the first important step of fixing it. It is impossible to recommend a general solution as it is always individual and reflects the circumstances. Although one of the best things to do is to ask for help, the person affected may see this as their own failure and tend to work even harder. This behaviour may help to solve short-term problems but otherwise brings the risk of gradual deterioration of work performance. It may also eventually lead to the person's collapse and thus result in a serious crisis.

Generally speaking, the solution will fall into one of the following categories or their combinations:


Creating a better and more transparent system is good especially for organisations but also for individuals when they want to have well organised information. The aim is to create a certain set of rules which will ensure the desired outcome.

The characteristic of this approach is that after training a new person can join the work in the system and take over part of the responsibility. In a transparent system, the responsibilities can be delegated more easily. Automation can be also a great help, when part of the work is done by computers.

The creation and implementation of a new system can take a long time, but the result will probably serve reliably for many years to follow.

The new solution shouldn't also become an unnecessary burden. Better organisation and management will demand some extra tasks but be careful not to create senseless bureaucracy and paperwork.

Experience and intuition

With sufficient experience and intuition, handling any problem is much easier. However, it takes ages of hard work to acquire such deep skills. If you know about the approaching problem, you can prepare for it beforehand – get experience, study etc.

In case of lack of time, you still have the possibility to seek help or advice from someone who is more experienced. This may be in the form of reading articles, asking friends, acquaintences, searching the Web or hiring an external consultant. Finding anyone who already knows how to solve your problem speeds up finding the right solution.


Simplification is a natural principle how to deal with increasing complexity. You can apply it both on the problem itself or on your role in the problem-solving. Yet, it should be kept in mind that some problems can't be simplified or can be simplified only with exposing to risks – penalties for breaking the law etc.

Examples of simplification:

Timeliness, resolution, courage

Some changes are a natural part of evolution and should not be avoided. Even an approaching crisis might be helpful, as it may lead to a better and more refined solution. What is important is to anticipate serious problems and undertake appropriate actions while we have enough time and energy to do so.

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