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Surviving and thriving in a complex world

Emergent Group Executive Chairman, Larry Platt, discusses his approach to business management

A lot has changed in Newcastle since I founded my company in 1988, but over those three decades, I’ve seen many competitors come along. A lot of them don’t exist anymore, but we’re still around.

Adapting to the changing environment over this time has involved flexibility and ensuring that we retained a broad skill base to permit us to respond to new challenges. The world has undergone a period of rapid change over the past 30 years and thriving in this context requires being light on your feet.

My management approach draws on complex adaptive systems, which involves multi-agent organisations and the emergent properties of those organisations. Just like a natural ecology, a business needs to evolve and respond to its changing environment.

I see interactions between a business’s staff and clients and government and broader society as forming a complex ecosystem in which various random “collisions” lead to a web of events and outcomes. ​​​​​​​

Complex adaptive systems are able to self-organise: a leader should take their hands off and let people respond — within guidelines — to their circumstances as they see fit. The people involved in the business — the system — will respond as they understand best to questions of workload, relationships and opportunities, taking the burden off management.

The flexibility and creativity delivered by a complex systems approach to management can be seen by our results at Emergent Group.

We have very low turnover of staff, ensuring our knowledge base remains embedded in the company — we have people at the business who have been here for 30 years.

I grew up in companies where command-and-control was the management style, and those sorts of organisations don’t tend to last very long.

At Emergent, we work with the principle of agile planning rather than strategic planning: we communicate with each other every day and alter the company on an ongoing basis to adapt to evolving circumstances.

We started off having yearly meetings and creating long-term strategies, but we realised it was a waste of time: the world was moving on too quickly.

We have just one long-term strategy: growth.

This gives us the flexibility and ability to take on work that we’ve never done before. We’ve taken on some very large projects over the years in areas we’d never previously worked in, but we knew we could do it because of our inherent structure and culture. As a result, we’ve developed a reputation for being able to solve unusual problems and unusual situations. Our customers know we’ll be able to handle it.

The world does not operate in a linear fashion and never has. A successful business recognises things will not always happen as planned.

Larry Platt

This text was originally published in the November 2021 edition of Engineers Australia ‘Create’ magazine.