In-House Perspective: Operating in a Complex World Can be Complicated

by JD Supra Perspectives

[The latest in our series of perspectives by in-house attorneys; on operating successfully in a complex world, by Matt Fawcett, senior VP, general counsel, chief compliance counsel, and secretary for NetApp:]

There is a sticking point for leaders and organizations that dooms many change initiatives. Until you recognize and solve for it, you will be unable to achieve your goals.

The key question: Is your world complex or complicated?

Understand your problem

This might sound like splitting hairs but is actually a vital distinction. In his book, Team of Teams: New Rules for Engagement in a Complex World, General Stanley McChrystal explains the distinction. He focuses on the example of the U.S. military’s struggle against Al Qaeda, a new and more decentralized foe that forced them to develop fundamentally new structures to combat a complex system.

Complicated challenges are those that have a high technical standard or require extraordinary resources to complete. Think about building an ocean liner or launching a global new product. Both are massive and immensely difficult endeavors, but the knowledge and systems already exist to complete them. People know how to make ships, and other people know how to design and launch new products. There is a game plan, experts you can consult.

Complex problems, however, are those that are fundamentally new and different. And they can’t be solved simply by applying existing techniques. These challenges can’t be overcome simply by doing more, or by doing something slightly better. They require a core shift in approach and thinking and a commitment to innovation. Think about putting a man on the moon for the first time, or designing the first iPhone. The moon mission built on many past efforts and on a massive base of expertise and experience, but it still presented a radically different set of challenges. It was a problem of unprecedented complexity.

For legal teams today, the world isn’t complicated; it is complex.

Similarly, the people building the first iPhone built on many technologies that were known and understood. But they didn’t want to build a somewhat better version of the smart phones of the time, they wanted to present the user with a totally distinct experience. And that meant crossing a chasm of difficulties that had never been confronted. It meant leaving the comfort of known outcomes and embracing uncertainty.

Lessons for Legal

The dynamic that General McChrystal describes – a world of asymmetric threats, resistant to conventional approaches – applies to today’s evolving legal industry.

Today’s legal professionals live in a world in which information travels at instantaneous speed. Shifts in our regulatory environment come faster than ever before, forced by an unpredictable global political dynamic, coupled with truly global supply chain networks, human resource management, and go-to-market approaches, all hampered by conventional and precedential jurisdictional approaches.

Shifts in our regulatory environment come faster than ever before...

Traditional corporate legal departments – risk-averse and unaccustomed to instant change – simply can’t contend in this new environment. They can’t address these problems with more lawyers, or a bigger budget. They need to look elsewhere, to explore deeper changes in approach and structure.

For legal teams today, the world isn’t complicated; it is complex. Serving their businesses means going beyond providing transactional legal services and finding ways to deliver real insight and context. And that means a new way of thinking and acting.

Taking the challenge 

I see that shift on my own team. We are in the midst of transforming to cope with complexity. Today, my team is half the size it used to be, yet sits in twice as many geographies. We have shifted to a model of “many islands,” with a single person covering a broad region. To make this work, we have had to redefine how we communicate and share information across the world and inside our own team.

This “islands” model makes it harder for us internally. It would be much easier to have my whole team in one or two places. While that would be easier for us, it would be harder for our clients around the world, so we made the change. We did this deliberately, deprioritizing our organizational convenience while knowing this would also require us to innovate new ways for our team to collaborate, share, and (most importantly) be a real team.

This means empowering people at every level and ensuring that everyone, regardless of their job, understands the larger mission. It means doing the hard work of stepping outside of our silos to understand and help each other.

In a complex world, you need to evolve or fall behind. The pace and urgency of the new global economy puts incredible pressure on corporate infrastructure, including legal. The only solution is to seize the challenge of complexity and leap into the unknown. That is the thrilling challenge ahead of all of us.


[As senior vice president, general counsel, chief compliance counsel, and secretary for NetApp, Matthew Fawcett is responsible for all legal affairs worldwide, including corporate governance and securities law compliance, intellectual property matters, contracts, and mergers and acquisitions. He has overseen the development of NetApp Legal into a global high-performance organization with a unique commitment to innovation and transformation.]



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