Three Situations A Leader Must Recognize


I recently wrote about how complexity demands a new style of leadership.  A new style called Adaptive Leadership.  Complex environments are becoming more common but that doesn’t mean they are all we face.  Any company environment will have a mixture of complex, complicated and simple situations.  Each lends itself to a different of management and leadership style.   This means a leader must recognize the situation they are facing and act accordingly.

So that leaves us with an important question.  How can you distinguish these different situations?  Mary Boone and Dave Snowden described each in their classic paper on Complexity in HBR.  Here is a summary:

A Simple situation is characterized by:

  • Repeating patterns and consistent events
  • Clear cause-and-effect relationships evident to everyone
  • The right answer exists
  • Known knowns, fact-based management

The picture shows a car manufacturing line.  It is a simple situation when it is running smoothly.  Repeatable processes and practices create the desired outcome on a consistent basis.  In this situation, removal of process variations is key and you can rely on best known methods.  If quality issues occur, they may be complex requiring a different leadership style.

A Complicated situation is characterized by:

  • Expert diagnosis required
  • Cause-and-effect relationships discoverable but not immediately clear to everyone
  • More than one right answer possible
  • Known unknowns, fact-based management

Imagine you have an antique pocket watch.  It stops working and needs to be fixed by an expert.  They have fixed many complicated watches and each one requires a specific diagnosis.  There may be several issues present and ways of fixing it.  What you are dealing with is a complicated problem.  The problem would be more simple if only one type of pocket watch was made.

A Complex situation is characterized by:

  • Flux and unpredictability
  • No right answers; emergent instructive patterns
  • Unknown unknowns
  • Many competing ideas
  • A need for creative and innovative approaches

The picture shows a medical research lab.  They are dealing with unknowns and many competing ideas in the lab and with other labs.  There isn’t a single right answer.

Don’t worry if you are feeling confused by these three distinct situations.  This is how I felt when I first heard about them.  You will become more familiar if you keep the descriptions in mind and try to identify the different situations everyday.  Some situations may be trivial but learning how to recognize each is key.