DMin, Leadership and Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

Complexity in Design

Written by: on March 7, 2019

Six months ago, the student affairs team I work with went through the beginning stages of a restructuring process. At the time, we understood the process to be about 2-3 weeks, start to finish. We were implementing a new technique called a “Design Sprint”, so named from Jake Knapp and his Google Ventures team. The sprint, is “Google Ventures unique five-day process for answering crucial questions through prototyping and testing ideas with customers.”[1] It’s a solid process that has been tested time and time again with various types of organizations and vocations. The process is that on Monday, you map out the problem and start by finding a place to focus. Tuesday is spent sketching some different solutions on paper. Wednesday, you do a lot of difficult narrowing and figure out a testable hypothesis. Thursday, you work on a prototype, and Friday, you test it with other people.[2] The process seemed easy enough to understand, and the challenge of doing it in five days was enticing.


By the end of the five days, it felt like we made some progress, but not as much as I think we’d all hoped. At the end of the five days, we had taken all of the different departments in our Student Affairs division and lumped them into three buckets: Spiritual Formation, Sense of Belonging, and Holistic Wellbeing. Essentially, we decided that every student should have some sense of belonging on campus, know that they are being holistically cared for, and be spiritually developed during their time as a student. That was great a start!


The second week was devoted to our VP of Student Affairs taking our “buckets” and making job descriptions and finding people to fill the buckets. What seemed like the easiest part of the task turned out to be the most complex. What was supposed to be one or two weeks, quickly became one to two months, then four to five months and saw us through the change of semesters. Then, last week, over six months after this process had begun. We had concrete answers about what the entirety of our Student Affairs looked liked, what our buckets were, and who was in it.


I think all of us, our VP included, severely underestimated the complexity of the problems we had and I wish I could have given her this book six months ago. Because Berger and Johnston tell us that, “A focus on the possible requires changes in the way we think, engage with others, and take actions. Moving away from our own belief in a predictable world is a major effort indeed.”[3] This book encourages us to understand complexity theory, which can help uncover current systems and how they operate in order to create space for strengthening desired emerging conditions and weakening other emerging areas.[4] This gives way for VUCA in decision-making: Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, and Ambiguity.[5]


The situation we went through in our design sprint couldn’t be more textbook VUCA. Peoples jobs were at stake creating high levels of volatility. The University has been in an academic year of uncertainty. Our Student Affairs department was made up of over seventy-five different people in twelve to fifteen different departments, all working with students in different ways, which adds multiple layers of complexity. And to top it off, we were the first division in the entire university to undergo this design sprint process so there were high levels of ambiguity of how to do it.


I’ve realized in all this complexity that no one walks out unscathed to a certain degree. While I was thankful to receive a significant promotion in this process, I’ve watched others navigate the complexity of losing jobs, demotions, being moved into new departments and more. As I think about leading my own team in a still complex situation, I have to remind myself that as a leader, I need, “a vision that is directional without imposing too much (or too little) constraint on people. And a leader needs a strategy that is clear enough for new actions by open enough to allow the unexpected to emerge. You need a guided process of evolution.”[6]


[1] John Knapp, John Zeratsky, and Braden Kowitz, Sprint: How to Solve Big Problems and Test New Ideas in Just Five Days, (New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, 2016) 9.

[2] Ibid., 16

[3] Jennifer Garvey Berger and Keith Johnston, Simple Habits for Complex Times: Powerful Practices for Leaders, (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2015), 9.

[4] Ibid., 28.

[5] Ibid., 8.

[6] Ibid., 87.

About the Author


Karen Rouggly

Karen Rouggly is the Director for Mobilization in the Center for Student Action at Azusa Pacific University. She develops transformational experiences for students serving locally, nationally, and internationally. She completed an MA in Intercultural Studies at Fuller Theological Seminary and is passionate about community development, transformational service and helping students understand vocation and service. Karen is also an active member at the Vineyard Church Glendora where she is a small group leader and serves on the teaching team. She is also a mom to two sweet boys, wife to an amazing guy, and loves being a friend to many.

9 responses to “Complexity in Design”

  1. mm Rev Jacob Bolton says:

    Yikes – that is quite the difficult task you were assigned! At the same time, it is pretty amazing how applicable Berger and Johnston is to what you just lived through. I hope that very soon there is much less VUCA in your life!

    • mm Karen Rouggly says:

      Jacob – this process couldn’t have been more complex. It was literally everything in this book. I am surprised no one brought this book forward. I am seriously considering buying it for our VP for the next time.

  2. Mario Hood says:

    Great post. I can’t imagine the stress this process must have been like. This may be a difficult question to answer, but knowing what you know now, how might you have approached this situation differently?

    • mm Karen Rouggly says:

      Mario – such a great question. I think I would have asked different questions in the beginning for sure. We all sat around and asked a lot of questions the first day, however, I think we were all asking similar questions. Or at least questions in a similar vein of thinking. I also think that the size of our restructure was just too big for design thinking. Design thinking is great for a singular problem that has boundaries. This was maybe just TOO big to use this method. I wonder if we had even started with an approach that Berger and Johnston described, would we have ended up in a different place?

      • mm Rhonda Davis says:

        Wow, Karen. You have certainly been facing a complex process in recent months. It’s interesting that you say this problem might have been too big for the design thinking process. Was there a problem within the problem that would have been better served by that process? Also, congrats on the promotion!

  3. mm Tammy Dunahoo says:

    Thanks, Karen. Being part of a neighboring institution we have been staying current with your situation and praying and cheering you on. We are all there. Do you see the process you engaged as being in alignment with the authors’ premises or did it have cause/effect within it?

  4. mm Harry Fritzenschaft says:

    Karen, Congrats on your promotion and your perspective born out of your experience. Your statement, “I’ve realized in all this complexity that no one walks out unscathed to a certain degree.” To Mario’s point, what do you think could have been done differently to reduce the “scathing” upon individuals due to the results of the restructuring process? With sensitivity towards you and others, while some experienced promotions, others experienced demotions. Thanks again for bringing your experience to help us better understand this text.

  5. Thanks for this Karen. I always question and wonder: How do you get employees of large organizations understand and appreciate the tough decisions leaders make to ensure the mission and vision of the organization continues?

    We don’t expect them to earn doctorates in leadership to understand this process. And yet it’s vitally important that they get it. Some will and some won’t. When I think of this in these terms the only conclusion I settle on is this. The effort from leaders to communicate clearly needs to be greater than the capacity for the followers to receive it.

  6. mm Sean Dean says:

    I think one of the real challenges of big changes is having a sense of scope before you dive in. As a leader you’re going to treat challenges differently if you have a sense that it’s going to be a 6 month project as opposed to a 1 week project. I think that the way the authors challenge us to ask questions and take different perspectives allows us to get a sense of scope before diving in. I’m glad you gained some wisdom out of this experience.

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