You have a complexity budget. Spend it wisely.

Every change you want to drive within a business costs you time and energy. You have a limited capacity of both. If you commit yourself to more change than your own capacity to fulfil it, you are most likely to execute the change poorly or have it fail.

This sounds obvious, and therefore avoidable, but many times I have noticed leaders' available capacity being ignored or underappreciated. I'll outline why this happens, why it matters and what can be done about it.

Firstly, on the work we do. Leaders generally don't have a lot of control over what demands the market or environment puts on their business. They can choose whether to do something about external changes, but the stimulus will remain: competitive threats, technology disruption, talent drains, losing customers to M&A, Brexit, and so on. The demands from internal forces can be mandated, strategically necessary or allow some degree of prioritisation. Basically, a leader is going to be busy, and you have to choose where to put your time, and that of your organisation.

Every single thing you decide to take care of, plus every direct report, will cost you time and energy. If you've built up a strong operational or change leadership team, you have effectively increased your capacity to drive change, and consequently can do more at once. A tweak like an executive assistant, operations manager or project manager can materially increase your capacity.

Within IT, regardless of whether you have an ITIL separation or continuous delivery with DevOps teams, you can divide work into design, build or run. Equally so, a leader can measure how their personal attention is divided between designing new changes, starting a program of work, or monitoring business-as-usual. On top of that are demands on the leader from the organisational context, home life and ambitions. The capacity you have for work, minus the load you bear, is what Jesse Sostrin calls the 'margin of power', and he first drew my attention to this phenomena, and he continues to write about it.

The framing I like is to say that leaders have a complexity budget which is spent on the demands you face.

If you get overdrawn on your complexity budget, you will execute change less succesfully or fail, communciate less than you know you should, have less patience and usually begin to lean on others more heavily. In fact, you can feel this in a stressed organisation when everyone is putting out fires, because leaders will start pointing out others' faults, demanding results more quickly than feasible for low-priority projects; basically drawing on others' complexity budgets to balance their own deficit.

In short, one of the ways out of this situation is prioritisation and clear goals. More on that in my next post.

Knowing about this concept alone can make a difference. Awareness should lead to more reflection on what demands you are facing, what your priorities are, and to consider how you might go about increasing rather than depleting your complexity budget.

Read the next post in my series.

Further reading elsewhere: