April 2015

Mastering Complexity

Mastering Complexity is a new Dependency Structure Matrix (DSM) book by Stephen Denker. Steve is a management consultant who has worked with DSMs for many decades and his vast experience is reflected in the book.

This is easily one of the most approachable books that I have come across. The early chapters were easy to read, well-illustrated, and explained the concepts well. However, what comes as a surprise was when the simple concepts of the early chapters give way to much deeper material. The book covers advanced concepts such as reducing cycle time, scheduling reviews, risk management, partitioning and tearing. In keeping with the philosophy of the earlier chapters, these sections are also covered in a concise manner. In fact, they are so concise that you would be advised to read some of the chapters in conjunction with the original research they are based on; otherwise, you might feel short-changed by some of the later chapters.

For me, the most interesting aspects of the book are the links to practice. One of my favorite sections is the chapter on reviews. It shows very simply how the ordering of coupled activities ties into review tasks. I also found the sections that show organizational coupling based on tasks to be quite revealing. One of the later chapters even has an analysis of inner-city crime and violence using DSMs to identify the control dependencies - a nice example of the out-of-the-box thinking that is enabled by DSMs.

“Mastering Complexity” is a welcome addition to the swelling roster of DSM books. Without question, systems are becoming far more complex these days. They are becoming more varied with interactions that involve a large number of tasks, people, and other elements. Today, there is an urgent need to document current approaches and to push on the frontier of new approaches for managing complexity. Denker’s book is a fine start for that process.