The Era of Complexity: How Design Succeeds Where Management Science Fails

The 20th century was the era of complicated systems and processes. Efficiency, optimization, and predictability were the hallmarks of success.


The 20th century was the era of complicated systems and processes. Efficiency, optimization, and predictability were the hallmarks of success. Management science came of age, helping companies finely tune their business machines. At the end of the last century, theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking predicted we were entering the “century of complexity.” He was right. Complex systems are different from complicated systems. General Stanley McChrystaI explains the difference in Team of Teams, a book about how the US military transformed from meeting complicated conventional threats to complex terrorism networks:

“Things that are complicated may have many parts, but those parts are joined… Complexity, on the other hand, occurs when the number of interactions between components increases dramatically…The density of interactions means that even a relatively small number of elements can quickly defy prediction” (Kindle version, page 57)

Today, the challenges leaders face at every level are exponentially more complex. The dizzying pace of change and disruption can be paralyzing as leaders realize they are unable to predict and manage in the same ways they’re used to. Complexity requires new ways to navigate environments, tackle challenges, and find effective solutions. Management science tools that worked before, do not provide the answers, and may, in fact, be contributing to the current challenges.
Design can tackle complexity in a way that management science can’t. Design thinking, visual thinking, and user-centered design build paths through the chaos.

  • Design uses tools and frameworks instead of rigid processes and protocols.
  • Design looks for patterns, not black and white answers.
  • Design is measured by its effectiveness, not just its efficiency.
  • Design stresses experimentation and iteration instead of focusing on certainty and planning.
  • Design is inspired by human needs, not a theoretical model.

Design firms were once focused on creating gorgeous and great products. In the past decade, fast growing design consulting firms have evolved. Companies like August, NOBL Collective, Adaptive Path, and XPLANE are now harnessing the underlying philosophies and methodologies of design and applying those unique and powerful skills to organizations.
The success of design thinking is leading to changes in the way traditional management consulting firms work. Increasingly, traditional management consulting firms are bringing design into their practices or are acquiring design firms with the hope of integrating these skills into their offerings. Both trends are a flattering validation for the design thinkers in the world!
So leaders take note: the time to break from traditional methods of analysis and management science is here. Yes, it will feel uncertain. Yes, it may feel uncomfortable. But as a favorite design thinker, Albert Einstein, famously said, “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.”

Patrick Dodson is the EVP of Account Services at XPLANE.

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