Complexity demands a new style of leadership


My first discussion about complexity ended up with my boss pointing out that I didn’t know what it was. At the time I didn’t care, it seemed like an apt description and I didn’t give it another thought.

Complexity next came up during my coaching studies. I learned about Dave Snowden’s Cynefin (pronounced cu-nevin) framework. The Cynefin framework describes four different conditions: simple, complicated, complex and chaotic. It was more interesting this time around but I wasn’t convinced it was important.

Complexity has become a critical aspect of leadership

That was a few years ago. In the past few months, complexity has come up frequently. So much so, I now consider it a critical part of leading. So why has complexity become so interesting to me? It turns out complexity is at the heart of many of my client’s challenges. I am working with very smart people who are very capable. They have strong track records and for some of them, everything is going well until it isn’t. What worked in the past didn’t work this time around. They don’t get the results they expect and they often resort to working harder with mixed results.

What makes complexity so difficult to manage?

So what does this have to do with complexity? In a complex system, the high variability and interdependence of its elements mean the system is continually changing. What worked before most likely will not work in future. This creates a big problem. When we are faced with a problem recognize, we rely on what worked before. This is especially true for experienced leaders. We develop a leadership style based on what has worked well in the past. We get frustrated when this doesn’t work.   Rather than step back and reconsider our approach, our self-belief pushes us to try harder.

When faced with complex situations, we need a new set of leadership skills. Telling the team how to do it based on what we know isn’t going to work. Telling triggers emotions like fear and it constricts our thinking. This is not what we need to figure out new ways to solve our problems.

Leading in complex situations

In complex situations, we need to embrace learning and experimentation. This requires the creation of a safe environment. One where everyone can raise new ideas without the fear of looking stupid or being ridiculed. It requires the leader to acknowledge they don’t have the answer. Instead they need to inspire the team to roll up its sleeves and figure it out. This is difficult if you are the sort of leader who sees their value as guiding the team and having the right answer.

If complexity wasn’t all that common, I wouldn’t be too concerned about it. It would be a nice club to bring out of the bag when needed. The problem is that complexity is becoming more and more common. In some companies it is the norm, especially when they are on the leading edge, creating new products and pushing the boundaries of science.

Every leader needs to learn to identify and manage complex situations. I could have saved myself and those around me a lot of frustration if I had taken my boss’s advice more seriously and learned about complexity. Here are a few things you can do to start to develop the skills necessary to deal with complexity:

• Pay attention to outliers as well as the norm and be very curious about them.
• Be explicit about the assumptions you are making and test them to see if they hold true.
• Get out of your office and seek diverse perspectives. Be willing to be wrong, dead wrong.
• Ask ‘what if’. Andy Grove understood this and wrote about it in his book, ‘Only the paranoid survive’.

Is your leadership style suited to complex or simple situations? If you aren’t sure, isn’t it time you started learning about it?

Comments (2)

Andy I love your simple, straightforward approach to the complex problem of complexity 😉
You really nailed it with your comment about safety — personally I find it something of a paradox that people need to feel safe in order to take risks together, yet it’s fundamental to leading effectively in our complex world.

I like your list of practical list of ‘starters’ and I can add something from my experience of leading and coaching leaders: when you recognise that you are facing a complex situation, pay attention to your body, particular to your sense of ‘center’. If you find that don’t have a sense of being present in your body, take a half a minute and a few steady breaths to regain your leadership presence. When we are present it’s easier to develop the open and connected mindset we need to navigate complexity.

Hi Phillip,

As always, thank you for your very thoughtful comments. Your point is spot on and it came up in a coaching session this morning. My client is facing an uncertain future that has knocked them off balance. Their perspective about the possibilities available to them was very narrow. As they became grounded, the number of available possibilities expanded. Funny how that seems to happen. 🙂

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