Why your next hire should be a Chief Complexity Officer

Travis Hoffman Profile picture for user Travis Hoffman February 10, 2022
Travis Hoffman, Senior Solutions Architect at Confluent, explains why having someone in the C-suite that owns complexity across the enterprise can result in positive data outcomes.

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(Image by Arek Socha from Pixabay )

Building a modern data-driven enterprise means you likely know that complexity is your primary problem to solve. While building a technology team in the past was as straightforward as assigning resources to applications or service areas, it's not so simple anymore. The name of the game today is complexity-between and among structural systems, clouds, teams, and services. However, far too often the need for a consistent focus across the organization is treated like a second-class problem that each C-suite leader has to deal with. 

Complexity in the tech world refers to a system with many components that interact in various ways and follow local rules- which leads to a situation where there's no overarching way to define all the various possible interactions. Disciplines like system dynamics, system science, and computational modelling approach complexity with the goal of developing foundations to define, understand, and ultimately tackle complexity intelligently to ensure better outcomes. What isn't a good outcome these days? It's something like the "Spaghetti Architecture," where layers of tools and services look like a tangled web of dependencies and connections. 

Rather than leave each part of the business to tackle complexity their own way, it's time to consider a new C-level role specifically tasked with solving for complexity: a Chief Complexity Officer (CCO). This is someone with an organization-wide perspective who is able to holistically view and address complexity. Strategically, this differs from the CIO or CDO in that the CCO's focus is holistic, with a mandate to cover all lines of business and any process or structure to improve velocity and reduce complexity where it's problematic. 

The essential goal of understanding and breaking down complexity is currently coming face-to-face with enterprise tech, particularly around data. Businesses are grappling with entrenched and growing complexity at the same time they're trying to actually use and productise all the data they're constantly collecting. It's a tech challenge, but it's also a people and process challenge that'll vary among companies-just look at Conway's law, the idea that organizations design systems that mirror their own communication structure. No matter your organization's particular challenges, it's time to develop competence in managing complexity. 

Tackling the work of complexity: why and how

Complexity isn't new to businesses or their technology teams, but it's growing rapidly, particularly where data is concerned. Modern approaches to managing and sharing data-service mesh, data fabrics, and data meshes-all have a common objective: to democratize access to data within an organization. This type of self-service data access brings benefits, but these modern approaches also require decentralized governance- which may remind teams of previous efforts that only created more complexity.

A successful data mesh, to use one example, will have plenty of adoption, a high data reuse multiplier, realised value, and be overseen appropriately- all leading to maximum ROI. A Chief Complexity Officer, with an organization-wide view, can help achieve these kinds of outcomes.

Why a CCO should build complexity competence 

A Chief Complexity Officer elevates the role of solving complexity to where it belongs- on the executive board. Trying to establish complexity transformation in a piecemeal, siloed fashion will likely only lead to more of it. This won't serve the business well as it's also trying to establish a centralized data mesh. The work of a Chief Complexity Officer should align to the goals of data product ownership, self-serve data, and well-supported but independent teams. 

Your organization's needs and goals are unique, but there are some common steps your new Chief Complexity Officer can start evaluating and then solving for cross-functionally, including:.

  • Building a domain map to outline the boundaries of scope, responsibility, and ownership
  • Assessing the entire current state, including development processes, release approaches, and more, to empower product teams
  • Identifying KPIs for success, including experimenting and tracking when changing processes (or any other change)
  • Rethinking the centralized parts of your governance to focus on building the roads, not driving the cars, to democratize design and controls

How will you know when your CCO has succeeded? 

This hard work can bring excellent business outcomes along with a new mindset of agility and independence. Teams' velocity increases overall. You have a better-measured organization. Your core architects and data teams are enabled to focus on the hard problems, not the minutiae of driving the cars.

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