Interview with Stephen Bungay about Leading Complexity

Watch the video on our LinkedIn page.

Hello Stephen Bungay. How nice to have you in the Leading Complexity program. For those who don’t know you, who are you?

When I started my business career in the early 1990s at the Boston Consulting Group, I spent close to 20 years there. End then I left and joined the group called the Ashridge Strategic Management Center. We were all ex-BCG and McKinsey partners and actually discovered that McKinsey Partners were not as bad as we thought they were when I was at BCG and we all got on just fine. The subject I worked on was strategy execution and I published a book in 2010 called “The Art of Action”. It was reissued in the summer of 2021 to give a 10th-anniversary edition. It’s selling steadily and that’s mainly what I work on these days

This program is about complexity. Why do you think leaders should care about complexity?

I think that if I was forced to name the single biggest obstacle to successful execution, I would say complexity. Complexity leads to confusion. It creates ambiguity. It’s very difficult to see your way through. The danger is that people jump to conclusions and try to simplify but end up being simplistic way. The challenge is to master complexity and understand the simplicity – the simple truth – that lies behind it

You mentioned leaders – what would you say are the biggest challenges for leaders facing complexity?

I think the people that are the best to deal with it are usually the people with deep operational experience but who are also able to zoom out of all the details of the day-to-day and how they all fit together. Because the art is really about grasping the essential point. What really matters – the drivers of the businesses – and articulating those and being able to put that message across so that the people who really need to hear it, do hear it and understand it. That’s quite a big challenge. It takes time, effort, and debate to do that.

What would you say is your key message to leaders navigating in complexity?

I’d say there is one thing not to do which is to make detailed plans because the future is not yet fully determined. You do have to set the compass. You have to turn activities into action which is activity plus direction. In order to do that you have to simplify the complexity- what can not be made simple can not be made clear and what is not simple, will not get done. The way to do that is to work through what you really, really want. To quote the Spice Girls “Tell me what you want, what you really really want”. Never mind all that KPIs, work plans, initiatives, goals, and all the rest. What is the essential point? Explain that to people with a context let them go away to have a think and come back and tell what they will do as a result. Then you have a debate about that. That process goes on at all levels in the organization.

This sounds so simple when you talk about it. What will participants bring with them from your session?

I think they will understand that it takes a lot of effort to do this. As you say, the principles involved are very simple to understand but it‘s difficult to do because it means acquiring a skill. This business of setting directions is not commonly taught anywhere. Not at business schools as far as I know. But it’s a core part of an executive’s work. I’m going to give you examples of companies that actually managed to do that – simplifying complexity in a meaningful way and introduce you to some techniques that you can actually practice at work. It’s called strategy briefing and back briefing technique. It basically encourages you to have a go and the more often you do it, the better you will get. It’s hard to start but the rewards, if you continue, can be very great.

Thank you very much. Looking forward to hearing your session on October 12.

Join Stephen and the other awesome speakers at https://www.leadingcomplexity.com/

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