Tackling Complexity

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Tackling Complexity

A Systemic Approach for Decision Makers

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 environment. It proposes a technique with which to better understand the 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 sector.

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. 

Borge Brende, Minister of Foreign Affairs, Norway

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. It’s a must-have toolkit for everyone who works in a complex world.

on 29 Nov 2013 Lynda Gratton, Author and Professor of Management Practice, London Business School

We are now recognising 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. 

on 4 Dec 2013 Linda P. Fried, MD, MPH, Dean, Mailman School of Public Health, Columbia University

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

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.

From the Foreword on 13 Nov 2013 Klaus Schwab, Founder and Executive Chairman, World Economic Forum

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

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 today's 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, NUS

Systemic changes ... require new forms of leadership from men and women – and especially women – willing to be the vanguards of change. For them, Tackling Complexity provides an invaluable route map of what it takes to drive change and succeed in the VUCA [Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, Ambiguous] world that is undoubtedly here to stay.

From the Foreword on 21 Nov 2013 Paul Polman, CEO, Unilever; Vice-Chairman, WBCSD


Paul Polman, CEO of Unilever; Vice-Chairman (and next Chairman), WBCSD


Klaus Schwab, Founder and Executive Chairman, World Economic Forum

 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


GILBERT PROBST is Managing Director, Leadership Office and Academic Affairs at the World Economic Forum. ANDREA M. BASSI is the founder and CEO of KnowlEdge Srl.

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