By Morten Hansen

65 Percent think their work environment is highly complex (so what can we do about it?)

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Here the other day Comcast came to my house to install cable TV. I also bought a new TV for the occasion and hired BestBuy’s GeekSquad to set it all up. After several hours of work, they told me it was ready to go. I sat down in the sofa to switch it all on, only to realize that I needed 5 –five- remotes!

My 5 Remotes:

So to get my new TV system to work, I need to figure out which buttons to press among 5 complicated remote controls (I counted 124 buttons in total among them). Which on/off button? How to access the right system (cable, TV, DVD)? Which volume button? I sat down and frantically pushed buttons to get the whole damn thing to work. I am pretty tech savvy, so how would my 86 year old father do this? How come that I am paying premium dollars to get a TV experience where I have to navigate 124 different buttons on 5 different controls?

As I reflected on this bewildering setup, I came to a troubling paradox: the very products, services and organizations that were supposed to make our lives better and simpler have for the most part made our lives more complex.

My annoyance with the remotes is a trivial issue. There are many more severe consequences of the expanding complexity in our lives. As a management professor studying companies and organizations, I see this every day. Take hospitals. Medical specialization has exploded: The American Board of Medical Specialties listed 65 specialties in 1985, 124 in 2000, and 136 in 2017. Many of those specialists must talk to each other, creating complexity. If all of those specialists need to coordinate with one another, they will need 9,180 doctor-to-doctor “hand shakes.” That’s massive complexity. No wonder why hospitals have problems in all those handovers and coordination of care. For example, a large study of 10,740 patient admissions across nine hospitals in the United States found that poor communication in handoffs from one caregiver to another resulted in many medical errors, leading to preventable deaths.

This complexity is all over the place. In my recent study of 5,000 managers and employees in corporate America, a whopping 65 percent either completely or strongly agreed that their organization was “very complex — many departments, policies, processes, and plans that require coordination” (see my forthcoming book Great Work for more details). No wonder people are feeling overwhelmed and spread too thin at work: they have to work extra hard just to deal with all that coordination.

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So how do we cope with this complexity? We can fight it and simplify. Work hard to get down to one remote, not five. Get rid of things that are not essential, as Greg McKeown argues in his book Essentialism. In my study, I found that top performers applied the Occam’s Razor and shaved away every task, meeting, e-mail, slide and steps in a process that didn’t need to be there. As few as you can, as many as you must.

That culling of fluff is a good fight, but it won’t solve all our problems. We also need to learn how to navigate complexity — that is, to accept it as a necessary evil of modern life. That means learning to coordinate and collaborate across departments, teams, divisions, functions and geographies. Sometimes improving those cross-boundary skills just a tad goes a long way. In that hospital study I cited, injuries from those handover errors across caregivers decreased by 30 percent when staff learned to use a simple handoff protocol called I-PASS.

As for that TV remote debacle, I just couldn’t get it to work. So I unplugged it all and popped the DVD in the player the old-fashioned way. That’s failing to cope with complexity. My new year resolution: learn to navigate complexity better in life and at work. Perhaps you need to as well?


This essay by Morten Hansen coincides with the release of his new book, Great at Work, published by Simon & Schuster.

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Morten T. Hansen is a management professor at University of California, Berkeley. He is the coauthor (with Jim Collins) of the New York Times bestseller Great by Choice and the author of the highly acclaimed Collaboration and Great at Work. Formerly a professor at Harvard Business School and INSEAD (France), professor Hansen holds a PhD from Stanford Business School, where he was a Fulbright scholar. His academic research has won several prestigious awards, and he is ranked one of the world’s most influential management thinkers by Thinkers50. Morten Hansen was also a manager at the Boston Consulting Group, where he advised corporate clients worldwide. Born and raised in Norway, he lives in San Francisco with his wife and two daughters, and he travels the world to give keynotes and help companies and people become great at work.