It's called Moore's Flaw, the flip side of the famous axiom that has driven the furious pace of IT innovation for several decades.

Moore's Law (in one of its many formulations) states that computing capability increases 1% per week. Moore's Flaw posits that keeping up with this flood tide of innovation quickly becomes too difficult (and too costly) for anyone to manage.

"IT complexity acts as a significant tax on IT value," says Bob Zukis, a partner at PricewaterhouseCoopers. It's those organisations that "have managed complexity out of their environments that are reaping the value from their IT spends."

Even more important, businesses that successfully address complexity can be more agile because their systems don't get in the way of business process change.

"When you reduce complexity, you increase your ability to implement new solutions," says André Mendes, CIO of the Special Olympics.

"Complexity leads to brittleness and high costs," notes Frank Modruson, CIO of Accenture. "But if you get your technology cleaner, you can serve the business more easily."

Today, all CIOs are standing in the path of a fire hose spewing complexity. And many are getting soaked.

Within IT, factors that increase complexity include outsourcing management, the adoption of Web and consumer technologies, support for mobile workforces, developing and managing technology architectures and governance for those workforces, and ensuring security in a distributed environment.

Outside of IT's direct control, complexity is increased by the requirements of compliance, the need to support global business, and the speed and depth of access to information demanded by your customers and your partners.

CIOs can-with difficulty-handle these challenges individually, one at a time. But in the real world CIOs face many, if not all, of these challenges, all at once, over and over. "That's why you need a strategy to keep complexity out of the environment, not just have knee-jerk responses," Modruson says.

The challenge of complexity is exacerbated by the fact that many organisations have technology systems that have been built up over time or acquired through acquisitions or complicated by many waves of vendor consolidation.

For these companies, moving forward requires an almost archaeological effort to unearth, understand and work with all these layers of sedimentary technology. This digging causes the delays that frustrate business executives and CIOs alike whenever change or progress is needed, says Mark McDonald, group vice president for Gartner executive programmes.

Worse, fundamental changes in business are making the complexity challenges harder than ever. "I don't see an end to complexity. Technology continues to change, and business demand for services continues to increase," says Wal-Mart CIO Rollin Ford. This means that even CIOs who are good at managing complexity can never, ever rest. And those who are not good at it are at risk of allowing their organisations to fall behind.

Some CIOs have figured out ways to escape the complexity trap. They reduce complexity where possible; they live with what remains; they still invest in new technologies that can lead to business success. But there's no silver bullet. You can't buy simplicity. And you can't hand off the problem to a service provider. No one lives in the complexity space; no one has a packaged solution to the complexity problem. The truth is that you need a strategy that reduces complexity, and you need the tactical ability to implement that strategy up and down your organisation.

Although there's no single formula that will work for everyone, IT leaders and consultants have identified four broad principles for reducing complexity:

  • First, make process central to your IT organisation's approach to technology.

  • Second, you need superior governance of both the technology infrastructure and the business-IT relationship.

  • Third, everything you do must have simplicity as the default expectation.

  • Fourth, your efforts must be ongoing. Complexity is not something you get rid of once and for all. It's a battle you wage every day.