The Complexity Paradigm for Aviation and Aerospace – Part 2

In my last Blog on globalization, consolidation and complexity, I pointed out that both globalization and consolidation contribute to complexity. I explained that Complex Adaptive Leadership can help your organization navigate this complex, changing world in a manner that goes beyond the ability to survive; it allows you to thrive by building an organization and culture that are prepared for the next generation.

A simple thought experiment can provide a context from which we may understand the accelerating nature of complexity. This exercise has been done with hundreds of executives all around the world; it may alter the manner in which you think about change.

Imagine you are from another planet – for some that may not be too hard to do . . . Anyway, your current employer is the Inter-Galactic Reference House and your job is to update the intergalactic report on the state of a variety of planets. Earth is one of the many planets that you report on within your portfolio. You visit every 300 years or so of Earth time and send an updated report to the intergalactic headquarters of the changes that you see. You have visited Earth for around 4,000 years of Earth time.

Imagine that you just visited Earth, with your last visit 300 years ago, and now you need to write a report on what has changed since your last visit. What are the main headings you would write down and what changes would you report? Did a review of your last 4 or 5 reports reveal only moderate change compared to the extensive change you witnessed on this visit?

Having done this exercise with hundreds of executives around the world, some common headings and trends are often identified and may well have been identified by you as well.


1. Technological changes:

a.) Military

b.)   Communication

c.)   Transportation

2.   Demographic change:

a.)   Populations

b.)   Age/life expectancy

c.)   Education/ general awareness

3.)   Social/political change:

a.)   Globalization and interdependence

b.)   Transparency

c.)   Power shift from church and state to market and consumers

4.) Environmental changes:

a.)   Urbanization

b.)   Global warming and environmental damage

5.) Rate of change:

a.) Faster

b.)   Extensive

c.)   Questions about sustainability

One way to think about this is to map the change over time. The figure below represents four categories of change along with the change in leadership assumptions that have resulted.



The dotted lines show the change over time, and as you can see the most dramatic change has taken place over the last 200 years. While complexity is driven by all 5 trends, there is more. Much is driven by standards, and government policy and laws vary from country to country and all have become very specialized. It’s easy to see from the above chart that significant change has occurred very recently and that the world is far more complex, faster changing and more uncertain than ever before. The explosion of information technology has given people higher expectations and faster access to information about what’s going on around them.

When we begin to think about the implications on leadership, we recognize that traditionally most organizations are structured like a pyramid with one person at the top and many levels of people underneath. This structure worked well in the Industrial Age, but it is becoming less and less effective in the Information Age. In this situation it is impossible for a single leader to keep ahead of the changes affecting their organizations, particularly global organizations that are in the process of growth and consolidation. What results is a discontinuity where the pace of change has by far outstripped the few leaders at the top of their ability to provide specific guidance and direction at a local level.

This shift has affected all organizations; in political, social, and business dimensions, resulting in high levels of dissatisfaction with the way our organizations are being run. The implications of this are obvious in the Aviation and Aerospace Industry where high levels of complexity and constant innovative change are altering the landscape faster than the ability of most organizations to adapt to the new reality. An example of this may be managing Aviation and Aerospace global supply chains, where it is a challenge to ensure quality and delivery requirements.

Take a look at your own organization, is it adapting to the new reality or reacting to changes after they have already taken place? Another place that this becomes obvious is in our planning and program management. Dealing with complexity is becoming an issue for project and program leaders and some are struggling. A recent IBM survey found that 70% of leaders were poorly trained or placed to deal with complexity. One reason why many struggle is that we have changed the context within which we lead far faster than we change our deeply embedded assumptions about what leadership is (and is becoming). We assume that deterministic and planned approach based on rational analysis will always get desired results when we need them and at a cost we can afford. In a complex dynamic environment this does not happen as well as we would wish and at times are increasingly complex and dynamic than our plans account for. The present and future evolve faster than can be deterministically planned and executed.

In my next blog on Complexity Adaptive Leadership I will discuss the organizational context we live in today which has been described as “Evolve or Die.”

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2 Comments + Add Comment

  • It seems that technology is accelerating at a faster and faster pace and the government and industry are having a difficult time keeping up. What worries me is the reliance on technology.

    Take for example the Boeing 777 accident in San Francisco with a number of pilots in the cockpit watching the landing assuming the autopilot is correctly configured while not monitoring airspeed.

    Or the Northwest crew that overflew Minneapolis while “heads down” in the cockpit on their laptops.

    What ever happened to the rule “Fly the airplane first…”?

    • Thank you for the comment John, these are important considerations. There is little doubt the cockpit complexity has grown significantly. I wonder if the frequency and severity of incidents would be greater if todays technology tools were not available?