The Challenge of Facing Complexity and Uncertainty

Mickey Granot has published a very interesting article entitled: “The 3 mistakes that prevent exploiting your business potential”, see at  The mistakes Mickey has identified are:

  1. Spreading management attention too thin.
  2. Misunderstanding the customer.
  3. Misusing measures.

I agree that each of the three mistakes has major negative impact on preventing better exploitation of the current capabilities and capacity in the vast majority of businesses. I think that there is a core problem causing management to repeat the above mistakes all the time.

The constant fear from negative consequences from changes that look promising

The fear is invoked by the inherent complexity coupled with uncertainty. There are simply too many unknown facts for every proposed idea that could, maybe, generate more throughput (T) without significant additional operating expenses.   The difficulty to handle complexity coupled with uncertainty is the key obstacle for every manager. The fear is partially on behalf of the organization and partially due to the personal potential negative consequences of a “failure”.

Example: Offering variety of packages of regular products with a price tag that is 10% less the regular.   The idea is, first of all, to combine products that aim at the same end-consumer.  Another parameter is combining fast movers with medium movers, and by that expanding the market of the medium movers.  Another aspect is the ability to use excess capacity of most resources even when the organization has to add overtime on the weakest link.  The idea is that the resulting delta-T would be much larger than delta-OE.  For instance, publishers can offer packages of several books of a known author. It is known in this market that while the newest book of the famous writer is sold very well, the previous books are sold now much less and might not even be available on the shelf.  Offering a package of the newest book coupled with the first book by that author, could be relevant to fans of that writer that missed the older book.

How would managers approach such an idea? It is not a-priori clear how much more sales will be generated this way and what will be the impact on the bottom line, taking into account the reduced price of the package, meaning significantly reduce throughput per copy.

So, a decision to test such an idea very carefully and for long time seems reasonable. In practice it means introducing very small number of packages and monitor their sales.  The result is that the impact on the bottom-line is usually not so clear.  So, the management, while giving the idea very limited attention, need to try several other new ideas at the same time.  The unavoidable result is spreading the management attention very thinly. This is one effect caused by the basic fear from uncertainty.

The second mistake is trickier to fully understand the causalities behind it.  How come we frequently fail to recognize the right value as perceived by the customer?   When the customer is an organization we can assume the generated value is based on the practical needs of the organization.  Understanding the business of the customer should guide the supplier-organization to identify the true needs and by that gain major insights on how the products/services could be more valuable.  Problem is that such an understanding is not common at all – most marketing people have very little knowledge on the business of their customers because of two key obstacles.

  1. Analyzing a different business from afar seems too complex and hence uncertain.
  2. The current tool to understand how the customer appreciates the products/services is to analyze the complaints raised by the customer.  This proves to be a very partial and problematic tool, which give rise to secondary elements and ignore the more critical ones, sometimes just because the customer does not expect the supplier to be able to deal with the real missing, or flawed, element.  Yet, having a practice seems good enough to many.

When it comes to the end-consumer, understanding the value of the product is even tougher because the consumer sees, many times, value that is not practical. For instance, taste preferences cannot be logically defined by objective attributes, or the aesthetics of the product design. I wrote in the past about the three categories of value, see

When we analyze the example, the creation of the right packages has to be based on good understanding of the perceived value of the customer, even the question whether 10% reduced price is a good cause for buying a whole package depends on the overall perception of value by the customer.

The fear of negative consequences causes organizations to be very careful especially with assumptions, based on intuition, about the external world, like customers and also vendors.  Understanding the end consumer is difficult because analyzing hard data is not sufficient.  Some logical analysis is certainly required.  But, even then several not fully proven assumptions have to be in place in order to understand the end-consumer and be able to, reasonably, predict the reaction to certain moves.  The fear of failing to predict the behavior of customers limits the efforts to create a ‘theory’ of the true needs of specific market-segments and by that prevents the actual test of the ‘theory’ and by that missing many powerful opportunities that might be much worthier than the current ideas.

The use of performance measurements to measure people is a clear announcement of mistrust created by the fear of failure. Measurements are definitely required for diagnostic of emerging problems and as necessary inputs to decision making.  A wicked flawed part is to assume that the measurements reflect the capabilities and motivation of the people in charge.  This lack of confidence in people leads to many local performance measurements and we know how distorting those are.  See also my previous post,

It is my view that eventually fearing complexity and uncertainty is the ultimate core problem of the vast majority of the organizations. Only very small organizations, where everyone knows well everybody else, are able to overcome the obstacle of fear from potential negative outcomes of each specific decision or action.

While TOC provides us with great tools to manage common and expected uncertainty in the key TOC applications for Production, Project Management and Distribution, the Pillars of TOC relate to handling uncertainty only indirectly. Humberto Baptista already offered to include a fifth pillar to cover the need to live with uncertainty and be able to handle it effectively, actually use it in order to truly flourish.  Humberto verbalization is:  “Optimizing in the noise increases the noise.”  This insight, which is also part of Dr. Deming methodology for quality, should lead to realize that in order to improve one has to beat the natural variability.

We should come up with a detailed approach to “managing expectations” that will include full recognition of uncertainty and by that reduce the fear and let people, managers and executives included, exploit their own capabilities.


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Eli Schragenheim

My love for challenges makes my life interesting. I'm concerned when I see organizations ignore uncertainty and I cannot understand people blindly following their leader.

One thought on “The Challenge of Facing Complexity and Uncertainty”

  1. This integrative blog is one of your best, Eli! I can’t recall a better one. It is a great example of how we build on each others’ thoughts. The other Eli would have been proud.


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