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Navigating Complexity in the Digital Era

Digital Leadership01-31-2024

We live in a hyperconnected world shaped by advancements in digital technology and globalization. This digital era, also called the Fourth Industrial Revolution, with its rapidly evolving sociotechnological landscape, is inherently complex, posing challenges to individuals, governments and public servants. 

However, by adjusting their mindsets and taking advantage of the tools and methodologies developed for the digital era, public servants can effectively navigate this complexity, making it a conduit for innovation, and improving service delivery to Canadians. 

What is complexity? 

“ … one of the main difficulties in answering questions or solving problems […] is that we think the problem is in the parts, when it is really in the relationships between them.” — Yaneer Bar-Yam, Making Things Work: Solving Complex Problems in a Complex World 

Complexity arises from the knotty interplay of interconnected systems. These complex systems give rise to non-linear, often unpredictable behaviours lacking straightforward cause-and-effect relationships. Complexity characterizes a landscape marked by rapid evolution and high unpredictability, where the impact of outcomes can vary significantly, for better or worse.

Simple, unconnected systems can reliably be approached with processes and expertise. For instance, even a complicated car engine can be built and fixed with repeatable diagnostics and interventions; complex systems, on the other hand, require a shift in perspective, paying attention to connections between systems and their elements, rather than addressing individual components. Connections between elements of systems unveil emergent patterns and behaviours vital for comprehending the broader, higher-level system, and adapting effectively.

Let’s look at healthcare, arguably one of our most important and cherished complex systems. Examining connections between elements like patient data, medical treatments, and providers can uncover emergent patterns linked to patient outcomes. Recognizing these patterns becomes critical for understanding the entire healthcare system, which could, for example, highlight the importance of personalized care rather than one-size-fits-all approaches. 

A small plant sprouts from a crack in a concrete floor, casting a shadow of a giant tree on a nearby wall.
Small, seemingly insignificant things can suddenly emerge from complexity, creating unexpected outcomes, with positive or negative impacts.

A challenge for the public service 

Complexity presents many hurdles in policy development, service delivery, and governance—especially as governments have been built around linear and multi-year “research-decide-implement-evaluate” policy cycles, often led within individual departments with specific mandates.  

This is especially significant as the government transitions to online platforms and digital interactions, which can offer convenience to the users but introduce new layers of intricacy and risk, such as having to secure an expanded cyber infrastructure and ensure accessibility for an increasingly diverse client base. In parallel, data generated by these platforms strongly show that people do not think in terms of departments and mandates. Instead, they want the government to make things simpler. In short, the more we understand the complex systems in which we deliver government policies and services, and people interact with them, the more we understand how many issues transcend time, space, and mandates. 

Shifting away from “perfect solutions” 

Managers and executive leaders in the public service face profound challenges in the context of complexity. Their roles and responsibilities encompass critical decision-making, resource allocation, data stewardship, and facilitating their workforce’s success in a world marked by volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity (VUCA). They must be aware that delivering on responsibilities in one domain may have yet-to-be manifested impacts on others. 

Public service leaders in the digital era must understand the bigger picture, recognize the trends that are shaping government policy and services, and foster an ecosystem that thrives on interconnected insights. Applying leadership practices designed for simpler times and straightforward challenges, or maintaining traditional organizational hierarchies, can create friction and hinder progress. In addressing risk, they must now consider a broader range of potential threats, even seemingly unrelated ones. 

A flock of birds fly in an organized cloud-like pattern.
Starlings replicate their flight pattern at scale and create complex shapes, called a murmuration, that, naturalists believe, deters predators.

In the service delivery context, the practices of design thinking, service design, and user experience have emerged as ways to navigate this growing complexity. Recognizing the impossibility of assessing the perfect solution to a problem (possible in complicated systems, but not complex ones with uncertain cause-and-effect chains), governments are increasingly taking an approach of learn-and-adjust, sense-and-respond, and test-and-iterate.  

“The only way to achieve the goals we set for teams tackling complex problems is to develop a deep understanding of the issues, test improvement ideas, learn from those tests, and adapt our approaches—continuously.”  — Jeffrey Allen, Lead Service Designer at the UK Ministry of Justice, “It’s Complex, Not Complicated”  

Complexity can’t be fully eliminated or controlled, but public servants can navigate it to maximize success. Embracing a growth mindset, perceiving challenges as opportunities for learning and adaptation, can help one find useful pathways in the complex domain. Navigating complexity involves a willingness to explore, experiment, and adopt the practices and processes that support it. 

Design thinking offers Canadian public servants a user-centric framework to create services that address the multifaceted challenges of the digital era. It encourages empathy with users, fostering a deeper understanding of their needs and experiences. This empathetic approach compels public servants to look beyond data and technology, considering the human elements that underpin public interactions with government services.  

By engaging in the iterative cycles of design thinking—empathizing, defining, ideating, prototyping, and testing—public servants can develop solutions that are not only innovative but also resonate with the actual needs of the Canadian population, ensuring that digital transformation is grounded in real-world applicability and accessibility. 

People around a table manipulate a representation of a prototype composed of gears and cogs.
Using design thinking can develop services that address complexity and tame wicked problems.

Moreover, design thinking equips public servants with a methodology to manage and thrive amid complexity. It breaks down overwhelming challenges into manageable segments, encouraging a culture of experimentation and learning. Through rapid prototyping and constant feedback, public servants can incrementally improve digital services, policies, and processes. This iterative process engages with complex systems, gauges the often unpredictable response, and allows adjustment in return.  

Technology as navigational aid 

One of the paradoxes of the digital era is that the very technologies that add to its complexity also hold the key to better making sense of it.  

Canada’s expanding high-speed Internet coverage, including 5G connectivity and low earth orbit satellite constellations, are bridging access gaps that are narrowing (but that sadly still remain). Scalable cloud computing can replace costly infrastructure, aligning with increasing Internet coverage. 

The Internet of Things, with connected devices and sensors, can improve service delivery through rapid feedback loops. Artificial intelligence and data analytics quickly analyze variables and predict outcomes within inscrutably complex architectures.  

These tools can propel service innovation and empower public servants, but they require them to achieve a basic understanding of their capabilities. 

A swarm of flying delivery drones delivering packages across a cityscape.
How long before delivery drones weave through our densest cities? Imagine the complexity behind the technology, rules, and operations required to enable this. What additional, emergent (unexpected) consequences might we expect, good or bad?

Interdisciplinary collaboration remains a cornerstone of navigating complexity, bringing together diverse expertise that fosters robust and innovative solutions to complex challenges. Navigating complexity is about asking the right questions in an era that requires governance to evolve as quickly as it does. To paraphrase Ernest Hemingway on the topic of bankruptcy, just look at how “gradually, then suddenly” governance around artificial intelligence became a priority in the public’s mind.  

Finally, clear and transparent communication is indispensable. It aligns teams, builds public trust, and provides clarity in an otherwise convoluted environment. The use of digital tools for communication (social media, for example) is not just about "quick and easy" but also about reaching a wider audience with a message that resonates. 

Thriving under complexity 

“Complexity is exciting and inevitable. It’s best to accept it from the outset.” 
— Jean-François Lavallée, Comfortable With Complexity 

The digital era presents challenges and opportunities for the federal government and its workforce to adapt strategies, policies, approaches, and practises to meet heightened public expectations. 

Recognizing the intricacies of complex systems and embracing them as growth opportunities can empower public servants and executive leaders to enhance governance and service delivery. Making sense of and navigating complexity is not just a necessity but the key to unlocking a future marked by innovation, resilience, responsiveness, and heightened civic engagement. 

And it requires public service leaders to be at the forefront, guiding their teams through the transformative waves of the digital revolution. 

Questions to ask yourself or your team 

  • How does my work interconnect with other departments or agencies, and what are the potential ripple effects of my decisions across these connections? 
  • In what ways do emerging technologies and digital transformation impact our processes and decision-making, and how can I adapt to these changes? 
  • How do my (or my team’s) actions align with the broader goals and challenges of the federal government, considering the diverse needs of Canadian society? 
  • What unforeseen consequences might arise from our current strategies, and how can we proactively address these complexities? 
  • How can we foster a culture of responsible risk-taking and innovation within our team to navigate the complexities and uncertainties of our work effectively? 


Phil Gratton

Phil Gratton

Phil talks about leadership, technology, national security, and digital transformation. | Phil discute de leadership, de technologie, de sécurité nationale, et de transformation numérique.

Ottawa, Canada

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