Does everything have to be simple? The case for complexity in business

On some accounts, we are moving from a world of hierarchy to a world of networks. A common feature of hierarchies, with its emphasis on communications as instructions, has been to promote simplicity, assigning low value to what lies outside of its frame of reference. So, can complexity now make a comeback in business?

I work in the co-operative sector. Co-ops are different and much of this, as I see it, comes down to the fact that co-ops tend to be characterised by complex purpose.

We are set up primarily to meet needs, not to generate profits. Our owners have overlapping interests, as they are both investors and participants in the enterprise (such as customers or workers). We are expected to live up to seven different (internationally agreed) principles and how we do that – our culture – is shaped by a range of ethical values.

Telegraph pole outside a co-operative nursery, Seoul

A tide of simplicity

In contrast, the wider business environment within which we operate is increasingly characterised by assumptions of simple purpose: return on capital for external investors.

In most markets, the shift to simple has shaped institutions and policies, such as accounting standards or taxation, that are designed to encourage performance against that purpose. As a result, as co-ops, we are often swimming against a tide of simplicity.

How do co-ops around the world track their performance or design their reporting systems? This is the topic next week in London (neatly falling in the UK Co-operatives Fortnight with its theme of the Co-operative Difference) for an international symposium on co-operative accounting and reporting, organised by the great co-op business school, Sobey (from St Mary’s Halifax, Canada).

Accounting, set up to make clear what is true and fair, is a case study of simplicity versus complexity in business. The move to harmonise international corporate accounting standards over the last decade looks to reduce the costs of complexities at a global level of different accounting traditions – a worthwhile goal (even if somehow in the process, the complexity of delivering global standards further reinforces the dominance of the big four accountancy firms).

But the drive for accounting simplicity can cross over into an attempt to reduce diversity. From time to time, international accounting policy makers want to move member capital from an asset, co-invested in a joint endeavour, to a liability, assuming that it is a promise of money owed by the business to those who participate in it. Why? For simplicity only, as if all companies could be treated as if they were owned by investors, rather than other stakeholders. But for financial co-operatives, among others, a move like this could mean instant closure.

For and against

Simplicity in business, in terms of return on capital, has significant strengths of course, including these five:

  1. Decision-making. It is easier within the business to judge trade-offs and investment opportunities.
  2. Capability. There are plenty of tools to draw on, plenty of expertise to bring in.
  3. Communication. Not surprisingly, simplicity is easier to communicate. Expectations are clearer, the chance for conflict reduced.
  4. Comparison. With net profit, return on capital and share prices, it easier to see and to compare how a business is performing.
  5. Accountability. Simpler purpose makes simpler accountability, because it is clearer what to account for – less room for people who use complexity as a source of obfuscation.

Staircase at the National Co-op Centre, Warsaw

But simplicity becomes an obstacle, when the context changes and these same strengths turn to weakness:

X Decision-making. Chasing financial results, like share price, makes companies act for the short-term rather than on long-term drivers of success.

X Capability. More subtle aspects of the business, such as culture, are less valued.

X Communication. The purpose of making someone else money is not motivating for the workforce or for customers.

X Comparison. Simple metrics can be misleading, encouraging conformity rather than diversity and learning.

X Accountability. Wider social responsibility or stakeholder concerns are sidelined, generating the potential for risk and backlash

The case for complexity is that businesses operate in complex and fast-moving environments. To succeed, they need sufficient complexity in their own feedback and learning systems to adapt and improve.

One example is innovation. The two most common sources for business innovation are workers and customers. Where you are owned by your workforce, or by your customers, as in the co-operative model, you stand a better chance of capturing those ideas and adapting in line what they offer.

A second example is loyalty. Where people identify personally and collectively with the purpose of a business, going beyond simply making money, they are likely to be more engaged and more loyal to the business, as workers, suppliers or as customers.

The third example is the challenge of sustainable development, increasingly the focus of policy concern and action. Business is challenged to act on a complex array of risks and opportunities that are hard to reduce to simple metrics.

Taking these, the case for complexity in business can perhaps be expressed in these five characteristics:

  1. Realism. The context within which companies operate is complex, so matching this can lead to more realistic decisions.
  2. Responsiveness. Embracing complexity encourages a culture of openness and enquiry, helpful for listening and learning.
  3. Safety. Companies that look at their interactions with the world through a lens of complexity are less likely to be blindsided when risks arise.
  4. Strategy. In complex models, no one aspect is weighed alone without addressing the totality, supporting companies in moving forward in an integrated way.
  5. Sustainability. The challenges of sustainability are complex and companies that succeed will be those able to sense and adapt to hard-to-predict changes.

There are other, more philosophical grounds too to affirm complex purpose – as a counter to the ‘financialisation’ of life, as an expression of freedom and as a component of cultural diversity.

The search for middle ground

As I see it, the response of business policy in many jurisdictions is to mitigate the weaknesses of simplicity, by interventions that encourage and require compensating actions to restore some complexity.

In a European context, stakeholder engagement and to a degree, stakeholder accountability, is a longstanding tradition. Having workers on the boards of German companies (co-determination), a tradition with roots post-war in the co-operative model, has been good for the German economy.

The Nordic countries have led the way on gender diversity, again with the argument that company boards need mixed perspectives rather than narrow unity – just one more example of the ‘law of requisite variety’: that you have to be able to reflect the complexity of your context in order to succeed in that context over time.

In the UK, the draft new governance code from the Financial Reporting Council is an overt attempt to move listed companies towards a greater degree of complexity – encouraging a focus on long-term purpose, engagement with the workforce, values and culture.

To that extent, companies are being encouraged to be more co-operative, more complex. And these are areas in which co-ops have tended to lead – on values for example. As I point out in my book, Values: how to bring values to life in your business, values evolved as a collaborative decision-making tool in the context of complex options. Values are a short-cut way of making decisions – as one co-op procurement lead says to me, “values are our handrails.”

So, should co-ops also move the same way, adding to complexity, further complexity?

My view by and large is no. There are of course some of those opportunities, evident in the rise of more participatory tools for decision-making, and the hopeful interest in multi-stakeholder models of governance.

I would argue that if co-ops need to change, it is usually towards more simple complexity.

An example is the UK’s consumer retail co-ops. For larger and more longstanding co-ops, there can always be a degree of drift in the sheer accumulation of expectations. To succeed, a co-op needs to be clear on how it makes a difference to its members.

Lincolnshire Co-operative has been going through exactly this process, with some support from us at Co-operatives UK. Successful, with over 250,000 members, and 150 years under its belt, the Chief Executive, Ursula Lidbetter has supported a process where the Board and members develop a clear forward purpose for the society: a few words, simple to say but still rich and complex in content and intent for what makes it so different as a business.

With a clear focus on what matters, what value is for members, it is then easier to choose the metrics that can paint a picture, alongside other forms of feedback, of performance. Merthyr Valley Homes tracks a range of indicators, including spending in the local economy and weekly levels of litter. The results are open to the members: residents and staff. For one social club in Yorkshire, the lead indicator is barrels of beer sold weekly. Members tell them what else they should be doing – the benefit of a participatory co-op, but key indicators help to balance that complexity of expectation with a more simple story of performance over time.

That is something which we are helping with, through the development of guidelines for the co-operative sector in narrative reporting.

More simplicity or more complexity?

The balance between simple and complex is one many others have considered. The words of Oliver Wendell Holmes, a late nineteenth century US Supreme Court Justice, are worth the repetition: “for the simplicity that lies this side of complexity, I would not give a fig, but for the simplicity that lies on the other side of complexity, I would give my life.”

The great mathematicians and philosopher Alfred North Whitehead, said in a lecture a century ago: “we are apt to fall into the error of thinking that the facts are simple because simplicity is the goal of our quest. The guiding motto in the life of every natural philosopher should be, ‘Seek simplicity and distrust it.”

I appreciate the modern Law of Conservation of Complexity, also called Tesler’s Law, after Larry Tesler, the computer scientist who is credited with inventing cut/copy and paste. This states: Every application must have an inherent amount of irreducible complexity… The only question is who will have to deal with it.

The implication is that designers can help ensure that the simple is not over-simplistic and the complex is not over-complicated. Computers, since Tesler’s days at Xerox have become more complex in terms of technology but more simple in terms of ease of use. In turn, complex software, such as the open source Unix operating programme suite, might be designed on the basis of simple subsets, collaboratively assembled, that do a single task well.

In business, it seems that simplicity alone is of value, complexity a necessary constraint. In terms of business philosophy, simplicity sells.

Ceiling at a coop and trade union education centre, Helsingor

I argue the opposite. There is a value to complexity, and a growing value at that. And yet, the need for simplicity remains a necessary constraint.

Like a flock of birds, wheeling in the sky, complex systems can emerge from simple rules, while retaining a function, of collective intelligence, what Geoff Mulgan calls ‘the bigger mind’ – or to the observer, beauty – which can’t simply be reduced down to those rules.

For my colleagues in the co-operative sector, the moral is that we should embrace complexity – and promote our understanding on how best to organise around it.

——————-

Footnote

This is all an example perhaps of a wider challenge that goes to the heart of a generation of debates on economics. A substantive body of work looks to redefine wealth and progress beyond the simple aggregate of money flows in the economy (or Gross Domestic Product), to integrate the context of unpaid labour, well-being, economic externalities and sustainability thresholds.

What we have learned is that while a new map (such as the triple bottom line) can sometimes become part of the landscape itself, a static description is not enough. There needs to a dynamic perspective that integrates things – a theory of change.

You can, for example, have as many different forms of ‘capital’ as you like in your (satellite) national accounts, but if they don’t make it easier to build an account of what is happening across the complexity of those domains, they don’t necessarily help. Of course, the simple option, which is to use money as a common denominator simplifies may help even less if it assumes that we can buy our way out of one or another dimension of collapse in environmental functions that are critical to habitable life.

The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals gives one interpretative framework and offers an important reference point. It is good to see it used by so many co-ops and Fairtrade organisations worldwide in their planning. And yet, as a complex array, it does not resolve the challenge of displacing the dominant simplicity of economic growth.

The struggle for what Paul Ekins and Manfred Max-Neef many years ago called ‘Real-Life Economics’, reflecting the complexity of human nature and natural systems, continues…

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