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The Curse of Creeping Complexity

by Hank Barnes  |  December 18, 2018  |  1 Comment

As the end of the year draws near, it’s a good time to take a step back and look at things going on around your business.    As a business grows, there is often a need for more process and information.  This is often done in the name of scale. (Check out the work of the team at Predictable Success for more on this evolution).

But there is another dangerous pattern.   We start introducing more process, more requests for data, more “stuff.”  Individually, these all seem like small things.  But collectively, they become an overwhelming volume of minutae that frustrate most of the people in the company (other than those that introduced the ideas).  It’s like being stuck in a forest of kudzu.

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Photo by Emma Frances Logan on Unsplash

A good test of this—are there examples of data that you have to provide as part of the process that no one seems to have any idea about how, or if, it is ever used?

If you see that happening, it’s likely that you have been overwhelmed in creeping complexity in the name of process and scale that may actually cause the opposite of the results desired.  Rather than enabling scale, these “little extras” curtail creativity and force significant added time to complete any task.   Now you need even more people to get things done.

What can you do about it?  The answers are not always easy.  Because of the creeping nature, it’s hard to recognize.   But they add up (as I write this, I think about the incredible value stories that clients used to describe when I worked in the area of workflow and BPM.    Process cycle times being cut by 90% or 50% of steps being eliminated, etc.  I suspect most of those processes were created with creeping complexity.)

Here are some ideas:

  1. Don’t ignore frustrations when people start asking why things are done a certain way.  Listen and evaluate.
  2. Take a closer look at data you are collecting.  If you don’t use it, or it doesn’t provide significant value, stop asking for it.
  3. Evaluate how many decisions people have to make to complete tasks.  The more choices; the more potential for mistakes.
  4. Look for ways to simplify the process  with more automation (but only after doing the first two steps).

One final (and it may be the most important) thought.  Creeping complexity usually starts with internal processes.  But, in most cases, it often breaks through your organizational walls and starts to intrude on your customer experience.   When that happens, there is no excuse for letting it continue.

Category: go-to-market  

Tags: complexity  growth  process-automation  scale  

Hank Barnes
VP Distinguished Analyst
5+ years at Gartner
30 years IT Industry

Hank Barnes provides research and advisory services on go-to-market strategies for technology providers. He focuses on issues related to positioning, storytelling, the technology customer life cycle, and customer experience. Read Full Bio


Thoughts on The Curse of Creeping Complexity


  1. Dan Keldsen says:

    Complexity creeps in all too easily – it’s damn near impossible to keep out if you’re a big company. I have a blog post coming up shortly talking about the same phenomenon. Customers can get what appears to be a winning extension of a feature set or product line, until they realize it’s really more of a win for the company.



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