Challenge and Complexity

“Divide each difficulty into as many parts as is feasible and necessary to resolve it.” ― René Descartes, Discourse on MethodOne of the most common mistakes that leaders of large organizations make is to mistake challenge for complexity.  I describe challenging organizational issues as those that are laborious, arduous, requiring well considered decisions, solid planning, disciplined execution, assessment, refinement, and perseverance.  Complex issues are those which require additional research, analysis, consideration, input from the workforce, collaboration with stakeholders, and insights that will lead to an understanding of the company’s course in the matter.  A complex issue is one in which the solutions and path forward are not (yet) known.  All too often senior leaders conflate the two definitions, mistaking the challenging or difficult for the complex.

In their minds, complexity is overwhelming, too much for them or the organization to resolve and understand.  So they don’t.  The issue is simply left to drift as a matter of too much complexity to deal with.  In reality, it’s likely that it is not complex at all, it is only challenging, requiring hard work, planning, thought, communications with employees, time, persistence, relentless focus by leaders, and it can be resolved.

Transforming organizational culture is one such area that I see almost every day that applies.  Enlightened leaders in a few organizations recognize that their culture needs to be changed, but they don’t understand how it is created or how to change it.  For them organizational culture is an enigma, a mystery, a matter of great complexity, so it’s left unaddressed and the organization continues to under perform.  Just as a person does not drown from falling into a body of water; she/he drowns by staying there, so it is with the organization.  But the (mis)perceived complexity inhibits the solution.

In actuality, transforming organizational culture is not complex.  Leaders need only to:

  • Define it,
  • Understand what creates it,
  • Decide how to change it, and
  • Get to work.

But that takes work.  It is challenging but more than worth it in the end.  It requires hard work, planning, thought, communications with employees, time, persistence, and relentless focus by leaders.  But it’s not an enigma, a mystery, or a matter of great complexity.

The key for leaders is to:

  • Recognize that there is a difference between complex and challenging matters for their organization.
  • Distinguish between the two.
  • Reduce complex issues to actionable understandings. These will usually be challenging, but that’s good, at least the company knows what to do.
  • Separate challenging issues into the simple actionable components and steps.
  • Get to work.

The best analogy is one we all understand; losing weight.  How does one lose weight?  Consume fewer calories and exercise more.  That’s it, that’s all we need to know.  But we must do it.  No kidding, eat less and burn more calories.  Relentlessly over time.  But this simple and challenging issue has been made enormously complex by the plethora of products, processes, literature, and distractions of the image and weight loss industry.  It needn’t be so.

It’s the job of leaders to make complex and challenging things simple, then to do them.

Simplicity is a great virtue but it requires hard work to achieve it and education to appreciate it. And to make matters worse: complexity sells better.” ― Edsger W. Dijkstra

Keith Stalder, #46

Copyright © 2015 Keith Stalder & Associates, LLC. All rights reserved.

Keith Stalder has over 40 years of leadership experience in organizations from the very large and established to small technology start ups and everything in between.  With a broad and deep appreciation for, and understanding of, the fundamental challenges of organizations and businesses, both in government and the private sectors, his passion is to help all organizations become all that they aspire to.  He is the founder of Keith Stalder and Associates, LLC, a company dedicated to advancing organizational visions and fundamentally transforming how businesses everywhere are run.  Visit for more information. 

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