10 Lessons From 10 Years: Don’t Underestimate the Cost of Complexity

Welcome to Lesson 4 of African Leadership Academy CEO Chris Bradford’s reflections on lessons learnt over the past 10 years of establishing Africa’s leading educational institution.

10 Lessons From 10 Years

‘At the core of good strategy – and effective leadership – is making choices.
Just because you can do something, does not mean you should.’

Lesson Number 4: Don’t Underestimate the Cost of Complexity

African Leadership Academy has grown dramatically over the past 10 years. In 2008, we had a single program (our diploma program), a single class of students, and about 30 employees. In 2018, we have a range of programs: our exceptional Model African Union and Global Scholars Programs for high school students; our lifelong engagement programs for alumni; Africa Careers Network; the Anzisha Prize; and more. We have about 120 employees working across the organization. Everything at ALA is bigger than ever before.

With each new program has come a new layer of complexity: new demands on underlying systems like human resources, finance, and information technology; and new demands on management and communication. Over the past five years at ALA, we have had to launch new financial infrastructure three times to cope with the complexity we were adding to the organization!

Our new programs and activities are a function of our success. As we have built our capabilities, new opportunities have emerged. We have been approached about opportunities including expansive teacher training; middle manager skill development; the purchase of other schools; and the development of new campuses.

Calculations and Considerations

Each of these programs could meaningfully be said to enhance our mission of enabling lasting peace and shared prosperity by developing future leaders. But adding these programs brings complexity, and comes with a substantial cost: both the direct costs of implementing new systems, but also the opportunity cost of the expanded focus. If we always say “yes” to new opportunities, we may undermine our ability to deliver on our most compelling, core programs with excellence.

This is one reason we have declined several offers to build new campuses for ALA over the past decade. While such “direct expansion” is tempting in many respects, we are not confident that it is the best vehicle for our long-term mission – and we do not feel prepared to undertake the complexity of a multi-site operation.

At the core of good strategy – and effective leadership – is making choices. Just because you can do something, does not mean you should.

 What programs are at the core of your organization and must always be delivered with excellence?

Do you have a clear framework by which you will choose to add a new project or program?

Do you have the appropriate infrastructure – back office systems, managerial capacity – to take on new projects?

Have you made clear what you will choose not to do?

Are there any programs or projects that you should eliminate, because they add more complexity than they are worth?

Share your calculations and considerations with us!

If you’re new to the series, start reading Lesson 1 here or click on the button below to review previous Lessons.


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