Decision-making in the age of complexity: it ain’t easy!

CPA Canada has issued Complexity and the professional accountant: Practical guidance for ethical decision-making, the first of four thought leadership papers.

The paper builds on a collaborative exploratory paper and global roundtable event held jointly with the Institute of Chartered Accountants of Scotland and the International Federation of Accountants. The broad guiding notion is as follows:

  • Professional accountants have an ethical responsibility to act in the public interest. In a complex world where values drive decisions and diverse stakeholder groups have a significant voice, this responsibility for ethical leadership presents opportunities as well as challenges. For the profession to increase its relevance and value, we need to collectively hone our skills and ensure that our perspective aligns with stakeholder needs.

The paper spends some time explaining its core notion of complexity:

  • In general usage, the terms “complex” and “complicated” are frequently used interchangeably, but they are not the same, and the distinction matters. Certain tools and approaches are specifically designed to solve complicated problems, whereas a different set of tools and approaches are needed to effectively manage complex problems. Failing to distinguish between complicated and complex elements, and therefore selecting the wrong tools and approaches for the situation, will result in suboptimal decision making. For example, choosing processes to find a discrete solution rather than focusing on managing dynamic elements. If such decisions involve navigating complex ethical challenges, the consequences of failing to make the appropriate distinction can be particularly harmful.

The publication posits that in our complex environment, acting professionally and in the public interest is no longer a “clear-cut proposition,” – for instance:

  • …many of the “big” issues facing society, such as the pursuit of sustainable growth, managing and mitigating climate change, embracing disruptive technologies and striving for social equality, raise questions of values that have broad ethical implications. Furthermore, as sociopolitical viewpoints become more fractured and, more problematically in some regions, divisive, the assumed homogeneity of “acting in the public interest” breaks down. Objectivity, another fundamental ethical principle, is challenged in the face of divergent views on how resources should be managed and distributed, what is fair, how to balance the economy and the environment, and – in the extreme – what is the truth?

That certainly seems like a reasonable expression of the challenge we’re facing (or part of it anyway). For now at least, it’s not too surprising if the suggested “best practices for managing complexity” seem rather underwhelming by comparison. The bullet points include:

  • distinguishing those elements within a situation that are complicated and should be solved in a more isolated way, from those that are complex and must be managed more holistically (but be careful not to assume that a complex system can simply be broken into parts – remember that complex systems have synergies and unpredictable interactions)
  • setting a tone at the top that demonstrates ethical leadership, open communication and creative thinking
  • structuring teams to facilitate collaboration with others who bring different skills, expertise, creativity and perspectives
  • distributing leadership to empower grass-roots collaboration.

And so on. But, at the risk of sounding facetious, if the average accountant were capable of doing all of that to a degree commensurate with the scale of the challenge, then he or she wouldn’t have such lame political beliefs. It’s likely that even the corrupt organization claims to have a tone at the top of the kind set out above – maybe they even believe it. Still, as noted, this is the first in a series, and perhaps greater specificity lies ahead. For now, this is the closing note:

  • By learning to adapt, balancing control with creativity, acknowledging the limitations and uncertainties inherent in the work we produce and the recommendations we make, and communicating these limitations to stakeholders, we can add more value and increase trust in the profession. And by adding a complexity mindset to our approaches, the profession will adapt to the evolving environment and build the next generation of competent ethical leaders.

Despite everything, the paper is implicitly optimistic, rooted in a belief that despite all the disruption that afflicts us, the world ahead will still primarily represent a forward progression from the one we’re living in, that a new capitalism lies within our reach, that the profession will continue to find ways to generate better than adequate returns for its members. I confess that I can’t see such a path through the accumulating threat and darkness: it seems to me that those aforementioned challenges, such as balancing the economy and the environment, will be ducked and downplayed right up until they bring disaster down upon us; that corporations, whatever their rhetoric, are likely to resist climate-related policies that even slightly restrict their self-interests; that the social fabric will continue to tear; that the quality of our leaders and the political infrastructure they oversee will go on degrading; that the world will continue to painfully split between the powerful and the dispossessed, and on and on. Which is only to agree that the looming challenge to our ethical and other values is, indeed, profound…

The opinions expressed are solely those of the author

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