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Tackling Complexity
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Tackling Complexity

A Systemic Approach for Decision Makers 

Gilbert Probst and Andrea Bassi
January 2014   188+xvi pp   234 x 156 mm  
hardback   ISBN 978-1-78353-081-6   £24.95  

Alternative formats: eBook (ePub)   eBook (PDF)

Review copies   Inspection copies


Click here to read the Introduction (PDF)


Our socio-economic systems continue to grow and evolve. We need to acknowledge that, consequently, our decisions often fail - they are ineffective and create unexpected side effects. The speed of execution is increasing constantly and markets and systems respond almost immediately, making decision-making challenging. There is little or no room for failure.

This important new book analyses real-world strategy and policy challenges, addressing the interconnectedness of the markets/systems we live in. It provides a step-by-step approach using systems thinking to solve complex problems in socio-political as well as business environments. It proposes a technique with which to better understand problems and the context in which they arise, and tools to directly inform each step of the decision-making process. The book explores the main innovation that systemic thinking introduces - the emphasis on defining the problem-creating system, which is made up of interacting parts, rather than prioritizing events that need immediate fixing.

The case studies, examples and the approach proposed can be used to better understand reality and its complexity, and to integrate stakeholders for a better solution. Practically, it can be used to identify problems, analyse their boundaries, design interventions, forecast and measure their expected impacts, implement them and monitor and evaluate their success/failure.

The book touches upon global issues related to policy making and strategic management, as well as issues related to sustainable development for both the public and private sectors. It will be essential reading for practitioners looking to get to grips with systemic thinking in business and policy-making.

1. Introduction
2. Case study: why a systemic approach matters
3. Phase 1: Problem identification
Case study 1 Problem identification with systems thinking: the creation of the Ethiopia Commodity Exchange
Case study 2 Representing and analysing dynamic complexity to design effective policies: fossil fuel subsidy reform
5. Phase 3: Strategy / Policy assessment
Case study 3 Reducing risks and maximising profits with systemic strategy assessment: Nestlé
6. Phase 4: Decision-making and implementation
Case study 4 Multi-stakeholder decision-making in relief operations: the Agility CSR programme
7. Phase 5: Monitoring and evaluation
Case study 5 Monitoring managers commitment: Deutsche Bank
8. Conclusions

Annex: Overview of key tools


Tackling Complexity serves as a valuable resource in using systems thinking for strategy and policy development using the multi-stakeholder approach. The book focuses on the main challenges at the heart of global and local development, highlighting key consequences, and proposes methods and tools to better understand and address complexity in order to improve effectiveness and increase sustainability.

The greater the complexity of the system, the greater the risk of systemic breakdown  yet also the greater the opportunities for transformation. Tackling Complexity demonstrates the foresight and spirit of solidarity needed to strengthen the opportunities related to organisational learning, and the transformation towards a more resilient system.
Klaus Schwab, Founder and Executive Chairman, World Economic Forum


Tackling Complexity provides an invaluable route map of what it takes to drive change and succeed in the VUCA world - Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, Ambiguous - that is undoubtedly here to stay.
Paul Polman, CEO, Unilever


Increased pressure for fast and decisive responses to complex problems is a challenge for all decision-makers and analysts. This book from Gilbert Probst and Andrea Bassi provides excellent tools for public policy makers as well as business leaders and academics, on how to deal with complex problems. The step-by-step approach followed by examples and case studies, gives the reader excellent guidance into the author's method.
Borge Brende, Minister of Foreign Affairs, Norway


We are now recognizing that the challenges to the public's health are not solved by single, simplistic solutions - just as we previously learned that the world is not flat.  This outstanding book offers a toolkit that brings the insights of systems thinking and analysis to the creation of effective solutions - whether for global epidemics of obesity or diabetes, or anticipating the health impacts of climate change.                             
Linda P. Fried, Dean, Mailman School of Public Health, Columbia University


As global volatility escalates, and organisations and individuals across sectors become more and more interconnected, leaders will be increasingly burdened by difficult decisions in complex systems of stakeholders. Tackling Complexity deftly outlines a practical and systematic approach for solving these challenging problems.
Dominic Barton, Global Managing Director, McKinsey


In a world of increasing uncertainty and velocity, Tackling Complexity is Making Sense of Complexity and brings clarity, insight and actionable ideas. Through a series of tools including  systems mapping, stakeholder analysis, scenarios and decision making protocols the authors show how today's complex world can be understood and acted upon. Its a must have tool kit for everyone who works in a complex world.
Lynda Gratton, LBS


Understanding and dealing with complexity is essential when it comes to modelling business situations and strategizing. Applying the 5 steps in my strategy processes throughout my career proved most helpful. This approach allows us to truly recognize the interdependences, include different stakeholders, understand the impact and timeframe of interactions and make stronger long-term decisions. The compelling cases, the structured guide and systemic perspective lead policy makers and strategists to better decisions.
Dr Peter Fankhauser, COO, Thomas Cook


Simple, linear decision-making belongs to the previous century. Economies and firms are now integrated across the bounds of jurisdiction function and impact. The pity is that too few decision-makers are equipped to deal with complexity. This phenomenal contribution by Prof Gilbert Probst and Dr Andrea Bassi places the techniques of complex decision-making within reach of every executive, regardless of whether he/she is in the public or private sector.
Trevor Manuel, Minister of the National Planning Commission, South Africa


What bedevils decision-makers today is not just the speed of change, the increasing interconnectedness of decisions or the risk of unintended consequences.  It is all of the above! In this smart, savvy book, Probst and Bassi offer a practical roadmap for todays executives to tackle truly complex, systemic challenges.  It is a breath of fresh air and an antidote to the overly-simplistic formulae that account for so much of the management literature. 
Rita Gunther McGrath, Columbia Business School


Our world has shrunk. A simple metaphor explains how. When humanity lives in 193 separate countries, it is no longer like living in 193 separate boats. Instead, we are all living in 193 separate cabins on the same boat, but with no captain to take care of it. Hence, this book could not be more timely. On this new global boat of ours, we need to apply systems of thinking to save our planet. Global challenges require global solutions. This book explains how to produce them.
Kishore Mahbubani, Dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy


Reviews of Tackling Complexity will be posted here after publication.

Dr Andrea M. Bassi is the founder and CEO of KnowlEdge Srl, a consulting company exploring socio-economic and environmental complexity to inform decision making for sustainability. He is also an Extraordinary Professor at Stellenbosch University in South Africa. In his work Dr Bassi is a project leader and researcher with over 10 years of experience supporting more than 20 governments, several international organizations and business leaders primarily on (1) green economy and green growth strategies, (2) action plans for resilience and risk mitigation, and (3) sustainable development planning. Dr Bassi's strengths lie primarily in the use of modeling and research techniques that focus on systemic analysis. He was a Director at Millennium Institute, and has worked across disciplines with the Danish National Environmental Research Institute and the Los Alamos National Laboratory. Dr Bassi holds a Ph.D. and M.Phil. in System Dynamics from the University of Bergen, Norway, and a M.Sc. in Business and Economics from LIUC, Italy.

Gilbert Probst is Managing Director, Leadership Office and Academic Affairs, and Dean of the Global Leadership Fellows Program at the World Economic Forum. He is also a full professor for organizational behavior and management and Co-director of the Executive-MBA program at HEC, University of Geneva, Switzerland. PhD as well as habilitation in business administration from the University of St. Gallen, Switzerland. He served as the president of the board of Swiss Top Executive Training (SKU), the Swiss Board Institute and as a member of the board of the Swiss Management Society. He was the Founder of the Geneva Knowledge Forum as well as CORE, Center for Organizational Excellence at the Universities of St Gallen and Geneva, and the Strategic Knowledge Group, Zürich. He is an award winning author of several books, papers and cases.