In business, complexity gets bad press. That’s not surprising. It can be cognitively demanding to understand how a system or organization made up of many very different interconnected elements actually works. But the fact that such systems or organizations are difficult to understand doesn’t make them inherently bad. In addition to its more obvious costs, complexity confers critical benefits, especially in dynamic and uncertain environments. In the following pages we draw on our experience and perspectives in business, biology, and physics to offer some reflections on the nature, benefits, and costs of complexity and provide some guidance on managing it in business organizations.
What Is Complexity—and What Is It Good For?
“Complexity” is one of the most frequently used terms in business but also one of the most ambiguous. Even in the sciences it has numerous definitions. For our purposes, we’ll define it as a large number of different elements (such as specific technologies, raw materials, products, people, and organizational units) that have many different connections to one another. Both qualities can be a source of advantage or disadvantage, depending on how they’re managed.
Let’s look at their strengths. To begin with, having many different elements increases the resilience of a system. A company that relies on just a few technologies, products, and processes—or that is staffed with people who have very similar backgrounds and perspectives—doesn’t have many ways to react to unforeseen opportunities and threats. What’s more, the redundancy and duplication that also characterize complex systems typically give them more buffering capacity and fall...