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A World of Complexity Confronts Print Buyers and Vendors

On a daily basis, on our phones and television screens, we’re seeing the effects of complexity—and how leaders struggle to deal with it and often fail.

Complex environments and systems share certain hallmarks:

  • There are ongoing, nonlinear interactions of numerous, sometimes millions, of interrelated parts/events.
  • Unpredictability: no one can predict how the interactions will play out.
  • One leader or team alone can’t make sense of every aspect.

Complex systems have brought us the COVID-19 pandemic, the economic crisis, and the political/social crisis. Aspects of these crises are even interacting with each other. The vast ripple effects are touching businesses and daily life in myriad ways.

If you’re having trouble getting your mind around all this, it’s because human minds are designed to try to simplify complexity through such methods as categorizing, reducing systems to their component parts, selective perception, “rules of thumb” and using metrics to predict outcomes.

These efforts to break things down can work for systems that are merely complicated, not complex. Complicated systems—for instance, an electricity grid—have many moving parts that interact, but they follow a pattern. With effort, you can usually sort things out.

However, complex systems have an infinite number of elements that can potentially interact (but may or may not). The parts are both interdependent and diverse. Most importantly, you can’t predict what will happen. 

Further, there can be different outcomes from the same conditions depending on how the parts interact. Another wild card is the rapid speed at which things can interact, thanks in part to global connectedness through communications technology.

In the business world, the field of “complexity management” has been studied for a few years, yet complexity seems to keep growing. The keys seem to be having a simple organizational mission and objectives, cohesive teams with the flexibility to respond on the fly, and radical transparency or sharing of information up and down the hierarchy and across silos (a network).

Complexity in the Print World

Print suppliers and buyers are used to handling moving and interacting parts, whether they involve machinery and computers, supply chains, or a package of printed materials with many parts and diverse recipients. These are complicated but mostly manageable.

However, in recent years, these systems have become more interdependent, things happen faster, and all kinds of elements are constantly being introduced that make outcomes impossible to fully predict—in other words, the operating environment has evolved from complicated to complex. 

As businesses are learning in the current crisis, instead of struggling to simplify and predict, the way to succeed in a complex environment is by empowering teams with the tools and information to adapt quickly and constantly—whether it’s responding to new customer needs, working around supply chain disruptions, or coming up with innovative processes and products.