Improving Performance Isn’t Complicated

by Jan 12, 2019Performance Management

A common approach to solving a performance issue (albeit highly generalized here) is to analyze the situation, diagnose the underlying problem, develop and implement an effective solution to the problem, and track improvement progress. Of course, the diagnosis may reveal more than one problem requiring a solution. Then, later, we discover fairly small improvements (sometimes no improvement), and improvements that don’t always stick in the long term. We accept this as continuous improvement and continue the improvement process cycle, always aiming for overall progression.

Many leaders, though, don’t have time for continuous improvement – they need performance change, they need big (transformational) performance change, and they need it now. The problem is, many leaders approach performance growth as though it is complicated.  And they use reductionist thinking – reducing an issue to the underlying problem as described above. Reductionist thinking, aka Newtonian or cause-and-effect thinking, works well for complicated issues. The problem is, many performance issues are not complicated.

They are very often complex, and that is a VERY BIG difference (to channel Sesame Street for a moment).  Complex problems happen a lot in complex systems. Organizations are, by definition, complex systems. Further, they are complex adaptive systems. That is, there are multiple (often innumerable) variables operating inside the system (the organization) and outside (in the environment). Those variables interact with each other constantly, in ever-changing combinations, and in ever-changing ways as they adapt to change in both inside and outside the system.

For example, think of your body, also a complex adaptive system, and how the multiple variables in your body change rapidly in response to changes such as external temperature, wind conditions, danger, etc., as well as internal changes such as pain, excitement or fear, or hunger. Your body is constantly adapting to these changes, even when you’re asleep. We can see it in factors such as heart rate, internal temperature, muscle action such as shivering, gland action such as sweating, nausea, and many more. While a doctor might use reductionist thinking to analyze, diagnose, and treat an infection (a complicated problem), that kind of thinking won’t work for a complex problem such as weight loss or fitness. Complex problems like these involve multiple change elements – physical, mental, and emotional on the inside, and often variables such as education, financial status, housing, social networks, etc. on the outside.

One of the reasons why the speed and scope of change in our business worlds are so much greater than even a couple of decades ago is that globalization and technology have vastly increased the size and complexity of the external environment. There are myriad more variables – moving parts – then when the environment was literally local. As Sturmberg, Martin, and Katerndahl (2017) and Grabow (2014) explained so well, because the variables interact constantly in constantly changing ways, those changes are not predictable.  By the time someone analyzes, diagnoses, and treats a problem using reductionist thinking, the problem itself has changed multiple times. The solution is thus to a problem that doesn’t actually exist anymore, at least in its “original” form. It is this property of complex problems that explains why solutions don’t generate the change, or the degree of change, expected.

Change at the system level is transformational change. Transformational change requires systems thinking, the opposite of reductionist thinking. If a leader wants to generate transformational and enduring performance change, she needs to focus on creating the conditions that foster the desired performance. This includes internal factors such as culture, engagement, employee well-being, leadership behaviours and practices, job design and resources, to name a few.  She needs to generate system change using systems thinking, not bits-of-system change using reductionist thinking.

For those of you who know me and my passion for strengths-based approaches to leadership and change, this might read as though that’s where I’m heading. It is! Because system change requires strengths-based approaches, not the deficit approaches that work so well with reductionist-driven change. System change is about building, not breaking down. But that’s another article…


Grabow, P. (2014). Complex systems. Paper presented at the Baylor Libraries Symposium, “Understanding Media”, Waco, TX.

Sturmberg, J. P., Martin, C. M., & Katerndahl, D. A. (2017). It is complicated!–misunderstanding the complexities of ‘complex’. Journal of evaluation in clinical practice, 23(2), 426-429.

Cite as:

Lee, S. K. (2019) Improving Performance Isn’t Complicated. Being Better Matters 12 January. Available at (accessed: date of your access)

Author profile:

Sylvia K. Lee

I work with leaders, supporting them in becoming great leaders who can engage their people, generate high performance, and develop enduring and productive cultures. I do this by helping leaders to first discover and leverage their leadership strengths and then recognize and amplify the strengths of others. At the organization level, I help leaders purposefully and intentionally design strengths-based organizationfor for high performance.

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