The Simple Response to Complexity: Teams!

It’s obvious to everyone that the digital revolution represents a total paradigm change. We’ve gone from the civilization of the written word to the age of code; from the word to the icon; from the pyramid to the network; from verticality to horizontality. This is so overwhelming that for the moment no one can fully grasp the technical, economic and social consequences of the change.

In less than 20 years, the lightening speed development and unlimited scalability of the digital world has spawned new global economic giants such as Google, Amazon, Facebook and Apple. Traditional channels for industry and sales are having to morph into digital channels as the value chain shifts to digital data. They struggle, they adapt or they disappear. Today, the ability to adapt fast is becoming the survival skill.

According to Deloitte University (Global Human Capital Trends 2015), 74% of senior executives see their work environment as complex, or very complex. The complexity is technical, organizational, cultural and constantly evolving. Everything seems to be contriving to make the workplace a stressful experience rather than what we would rather see it be: an opportunity for self-actualization and development.

The result is an overkill of complexity, perplexity and anxiety. And it’s only begun!


Organizational responses to the digital revolution

As little as ten years ago, our clients, already engaged in major transformations, were asking us to help them “adapt and communicate the organization and culture” across the company. It was relatively straightforward, and included:


  • The fact that it was possible to understand the overall organization
  • Structural stability
  • Effective operational processes
  • Vertical hierarchies (though already challenged by the matrix)
  • Silos and boundaries between functions
  • Clear boundaries between the company and its environment
  • Relative cultural homogeneity

A short ten years later, none of this is relevant any more. The organizational matrix has become so complicated that it’s a nightmare to even try to describe it. It changes so fast that the new PowerPoint presentation is obsolete one week after it’s been shared. What’s needed is a totally new organizational model that integrates the consequences of the digital revolution. The model cannot be about boxes and lines. Companies have to organize around a system of agile interactions, communications, and rapid access to information and resources. Today it’s about (among other things):

Today and Tomorrow

  • Organizational plasticity
  • Diverse internal ecosystems
  • Ad hoc project-based management of complex interactions
  • Fruitful horizontal cooperation
  • Integration and project oriented
  • Multiple external partnerships
  • Productive cultural diversity

The list could go on. Competition is forcing individuals to live in a constant state of instability at the same time as they are expected to deliver constantly greater results. Whatever their position and hierarchical level, people are questioning the relevance of their past experience, no matter how valuable it may be. They have neither clear answers nor strong beliefs about how to deal with the chaos and confusion they feel. They live in a constant “day-by-day” world that increases anxiety to a point where companies are turning to all sorts of new things to avoid major psychosocial risks: coaching, facilitated support groups, meditation, focus on well-being and wellness, and exercise.


The team as a response to complexity and transformation

So how can companies offer greater stability and serenity? How can they adapt their organization today? What decision-making processes make sense? What new behaviors are needed? How can they redesign information flow and get teams to cooperate for better performance?

ICM is betting on the power of teams.

Whether functional, operational or ad hoc project teams, co-located or remote, a team is a perfect example of where people interact for results. Teams bring together a limited number of people and so they potentially constitute a collective response to the anxieties of complexity. Teams breed confidence, energy and pleasure as no other organizational entity can do. Teamwork allows members to sort out the intercultural, intergenerational or political difficulties that otherwise thwart collective action.

When teams understand and work within their own ecosystems the collective success of the organization will then depend not on formal rules and structures but on multiple effective teams.

In a complex world, formal rules, which are mostly “top-down”, lose their value and legitimacy. The effectiveness of the overall organization will depend, instead, on having the appropriate number and range of team initiatives.

Of course there’s no reason to throw out the basics: Teams must be clear about their mission and objectives. They need to agree on ways of working together in order to compensate, within the team, for the instability of the external environment. Teams need to define a shared code of conduct and set of values to facilitate maximum levels of trust, especially in multicultural environments where behavior norms can differ so widely.

But they have to do much more than that. And we can suggest some simple steps to allow teams to respond effectively to the pervasive complexity of our environment. It’s all about integrating stakeholders and bringing new competencies to the fore.

More than anything else, teams need to understand and manage their own ecosystems. These are the 5 to 8 (rarely more) stakeholders which, with the Group or the sub-set to which the team belongs, account for 80% of its most critical (positive or negative) interactions. For each one the team needs to develop a “cooperation strategy” and keep evolving it as needed. The most important response to the fundamental transformations we are going through today lie in the quality and effectiveness of these interactions: how they are analyzed and shared so that all team members can align around their implementation.

Easier to say than to do! To make this possible requires three conditions:

New most critical leadership competencies. These have been around of course, but often as “additional things to look for” and never as show-stoppers. Today they are indispensable. We’re talking about the ability to engage in systemic and strategic analysis; to influence and negotiate, to manage conflicts and projects; to coach people.

Spirit of openness and cooperation, based on solidarity, mindfulness and trust; on inspiration and desire to be successful together. They are the keys to the resilience that allows organizations to weather the storm while getting even stronger. Here we’re talking about creating a new culture, and it’s all the more possible given the collaborative tools available in large organizations today.

A new tempo. Think about music. If the orchestra is too too slow everything sounds heavy. If it’s too fast, it flails out in all directions and sounds all wrong. In either case the audience gets up and goes listen to another band. What we’re talking about here is finding a rhythm that really syncs with the speed of the transformations in markets and industries, services and commercial operations today.

ICM has been continuously evolving and adapting all our experience and methodologies to work with our clients to create more and more teams that are effective both the ground and with respect to their own internal interactions. The more teams there are that interact effectively within their specific ecosystems, the more the company overall will be successful.




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One Response to “The Simple Response to Complexity: Teams!”


  1. Interesting post Charles and thanks for sharing IMC views on responses to the growing complexity of business.

    I can say that all you mentioned is incredibly true in all intercultural and non intercultural organisations I have been working with (employers or clients). I think team is the elementary working unit in a entreprise. It can be very small or bigger but I think should not be more than 20, to give a magic number. If the team grows larger, then it is time to split it to preserve the energy.

    But with this organisation, autonomy is challenged. Same autonomy shall be given to every teams. But this requires to find new ways and relationship to steer the whole company. This new organisation is what can be qualifeied a neuronal network. We don not want to restrain the energy created within at the boundaries of the team. The positive energy and information shall be conveyed as smooth and fast as in a neuronal network. Specific tools and methods must also be implemented subsequently.

    All the best