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A Simple Approach To Managing Complexity


It is common these days to assume that because the world is undergoing what is generally accepted to be unprecedented change brought about to a large extent by ever-smarter technology then business must necessarily be complex. Certainly, it can look that way and leaders are inclined to emphasize the challenges they say they confront on an almost daily basis. But does it follow that managing complexity requires complex management?

One who thinks not is James M. Kerr, author of The Executive Checklist: A Guide for Setting Direction and Managing Change (Palgrave Macmillan). A management consultant and organizational behaviourist, he makes the case for “going back to the fundamentals” rather than trying to “over-engineer” things. Drawing on the principles of project management, he sets out to make a complex place rather simpler by breaking problems into manageable units and then setting out a few key tasks that have to be completed in order to resolve each issue and so reach the overall target.

Some might question whether being head of a complex organization can really be distilled into a few principles. But Kerr maintains that the checklist approach works because of rather than in spite of its simplicity. “To be successful in this extremely complex and unstable business environment, executive leaders must do all that they can to simplify. Therefore, checklists are in order,” he asserts early on in the book.

The Kerr checklist reads as follows:

  • Establish Leadership
  • Build Trust
  • Set Strategy
  • Engage Staff
  • Manage Work as Projects
  • Renovate the Business
  • Align Technology
  • Transform Staff
  • Renew Communications Practices
  • Reimagine Organization Design

As the author himself points out, “At first glance, these ten items seem innocuous enough.” But he warns that, with “a great deal of meaning and relevance” packed into each one, “none of them should be taken lightly”. Kerr concedes that the approach taken by individual managers and the results produced will vary greatly, not least because of the variables unique to those managers and their organizations. Nevertheless, he argues forcefully that each item must be given proper attention. And to make the process easier, each item receives its own chapter and a checklist to work through.

Accordingly, the checklist for establishing leadership looks like this:

  • Have a Dream
  • Actively Set Direction
  • Communicate Early and Often
  • Be Dynamic and Visibly Involved
  • Promote Collaboration
  • Practice Inclusiveness
  • Don’t Tolerate Bad Leaders in Your Midst
  • Make No Excuses

The result is much more direction than many business books tend to offer. Also, unusually, Kerr is not afraid to use examples of businesses “getting it wrong” to make his points.  Hence, in the leadership section the failure of the transformation effort at CIGNA HealthCare is cited as an example of a lack of dynamic leadership. “Make no mistake,” he writes. “People need dynamic coaching and active leadership on significant and new change initiatives.”

Anybody who uses “to do” lists to give structure to their working day will attest to the power of such devices in ensuring that nothing is overlooked. They will also doubtless admit to the psychological lift that follows the striking off of each task. So Kerr could find himself on to something here. Doubters might question whether what is essentially a collection of lists is a sound enough basis for running an organization or even a part of one. But that is not the point. The real power of this approach is that it goes beyond the jargon and waffle to encourage leaders at all levels to focus on what is important.

We all know that business is complex and challenging. But in many senses that has always been the case. The Executive Checklist reminds managers that there are certain universal truths – encapsulated in the points on the checklist – that if adhered to will help them find a route through all the confusion and obstacles thrown up by their own organizations and circumstances.  To read the article click here on


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