How to manage your complexity budget

There's an important concept that all leaders have an energetic budget with which they get things done. Every demand you face spends some of your complexity budget. My earlier post outlined that idea and credits its originators.

As a leader, if you have more demands that you can satisfy, an overwhelming number of conflicting priorities, dissatisfied stakeholders or are spending too much of your day putting out fires, some of these methods could help.

Set clear priorities

If you have more demands on you than you have time or resources to satisfy, it is really hard to use some of that time (which you don't have) to prioritise everything. It's probably the right thing to do, though.
If you're that busy, your team are likely equally so, and will benefit from clarity on priorities.
Start with being clear on the organisational goals and measures of success, ideally from perspective of your boss/market/Board.
Then of your team, the questions to ask:

  • What's the most important thing for the team to achieve this week, or month?
  • More importantly, what can they stop doing?
  • Who can they say no to, with your support when it's escalated?
  • Is there a customer or stakeholder who could have their SLA wilfully degraded?

Deeper management thinking

Review whether you are even solving the right problems. Was the starting problem statement correct? This is a common, huge organisational weakness. Perform proper root cause analysis. Read more. For wider reading, check out Kepner-Tregoe methodology and lean six sigma for services.

Understand the theory of constraints and systems thinking. Improvements which are not made to the constraint in a system will have no benefit. Find the constraint. Improve its capacity. The constraint will then move. You want to choose where the constraint should be. See:

  • Phoenix Project - a great introductory book, easy to read, about systems thinking and the theory of constraints.
  • The Machine - a brilliant book on improving an organisation's sales processes by investing in inside sales, and thinking about where the constraint of the system should be.

Also, you can get agile in leadership and management teams. It's not just for software development.

All of these above topics can help you find a way to challenge the demand, to reduce work coming in in the first place. That can in turn create additional capacity, and restore some complexity budget.

Document the consequences

As the leader, you will have stakeholders whose expectations need to be managed down. If you describe your team's capacity in some term (like FTE or sprints), you can list the work which they will be able to prosecute, and list lower-priority work that exceeds capacity and therefore needs to be stopped (or delayed or degraded).

It's surprisingly hard sometimes, but the right thing to do is to document clearly:

  • the issue: such as, "more work that your team has capacity to handle", why it's presenting, and what's been done to challenge the demand,
  • consequences: those items you can't prosecute which you judge to be the lowest priority
  • impact, preferably measurable: what are the consequences to the business of stopping. The reverse could be written as the benefits of more capacity to handle it.

Know that your complexity budget will continuously flow into and out of deficit. You need to actively find ways to increase your capacity.