Dealing with Complexity is a key skill of leadership. Leaders need to see Complexity and its cousin Chaos as an opportunity to explore and play beyond the boundaries. This involves casting aside the myth of predictability and control, which is in marked contrast to what is practiced in many organisations, where the compulsion is to batten down the gates and narrow the horizon.
The Wikipedia definition for complexity includes:
Complexity is generally used to characterize something with many parts where those parts interact with each other in multiple ways, culminating in a higher order of emergence greater than the sum of its parts.
Formulas, rules, and guidelines can’t be relied upon when dealing with Complexity and Chaos, rather knowledge and insight is usually gleaned and discovered iteratively and following the action. Interestingly, this insight may not necessarily be translatable to any future chaotic or complex situations. Knowledge in this respect is context bound and ‘unordered’ as opposed to ‘ordered’, terms coined by Snowden and Boone. Dealing with Chaos also demands prompt action with little time for analysis.
Stimulate the creative process by willfully and intentionally encouraging exploration, play and inductive problem-solving. Hold the need for fast decisions and use what-if analysis, scenario planning, design thinking etc.
Look at the whole system that intersects and interconnects with the issue/problem.
Step outside your area of comfort more often, immerse yourself in the complex feelings of confusion, anxiety, apprehension, expectation, joy etc associated with this Not knowing. Be ok with Not-Knowing.
Understand the weights, rewards and ways of working imposed by the organisation to operate within the known. Acknowledge and name it and if within your area of control, change it or go around it.
Take on multiple and competing perspectives about an issue or about the organisation at large.
Be open and more receptive to new information by intentionally taking in more novel information and synthesising contradictory categories.
Be more tolerant of ambiguity, ask more questions that force you to look at both sides of the dilemma/issue.
Act as a conduit for new ideas for people, technology, and processes.
Work through simplifying complexity for the team. This adds another layer of insight and allows you to iteratively adopt insights.
Doing some or all of this will add breadth and depth to your understanding, increasing your ’cognitive complexity’ ability over time.
Results of my discussions from the article with LinkedIn members are detailed below:
See Discussion at:
Vishey states that complexity is a relative word. I would agree and state that it has different implied meanings. However, within the context of my article, I draw on a couple of well-researched and established frameworks. I’m mindful of being brief and would suggest further reading for more context and depth.
Snowden’s Cynefin sensemaking framework outlines three modes of knowledge, ordered and unordered, which I allude to in the article above and disordered. These knowledge modes are located and applied within four dynamic domains of which it is Simple/Obvious, Complicated, Complex and Chaotic, the domains are both distinct and nuanced at the boundaries.
The simple domain operates within the ‘Known Knowns’, there is a shared understanding amongst people and generally, the right answer is self-evident. Best Practice is an example of this domain.
The Complicated domain is the realm of the ‘Known Unknowns’, they may contain multiple answers and there may be multiple pathways and ways of problem-solving to achieve the outcome. There is a clear relationship between cause and effect but not everyone can see it. Experts tend to dominate this domain with a tendency to isolate mavericks or out of the box ideas that don't fit the established expert orthodoxy. Snowden uses a Ferrari to illustrate this domain. “Ferraris are complicated machines, but an expert mechanic can take one apart and reassemble it without changing a thing. The car is static, and the whole is the sum of its parts”.
The Complex domain is the realm of the ‘Unknown Unknowns’, the right answer is hard to discern and no one expert or body of knowledge holds the key. A path forward emerges following action and we can only understand why things happen in retrospect. This requires experimentation for patterns to emerge rather than a focus on a goal orientated outcome frame. Imposing order too early will only curtail the emergent creative process that leads to a solution. In contrast to the Ferrari Snowden uses the Rainforest as an example of this domain, because a “Rainforest is in constant flux—a species becomes extinct, weather patterns change, an agricultural project reroutes a water source—and the whole is far more than the sum of its parts.
The Chaotic domain is the domain of the Unknowables and searching for the right answers is pointless, issues shift quickly and dramatically with only turbulence in sight. The leader's role is to quickly establish order, reduce the bleeding and then work at changing the situation from Chaos to Complexity. He cites September 11 and the decisive role Mayor Rudy Giuliani played early in the crisis as an example.
There is one other important distinction that I would highlight between the domains of Complicated and Complexity and that is that whilst expertise and perhaps the expert can resolve the issue given time and resources within the Complicated domain. The Complex domain relies on the system and the learning that emanates from all of the agents within the system. Learning here is a socially constructed and enacted process. None of the agents can know what the experience is until they experience it as it unfolds in real time. This is inherently what organizations are seeking when working to resolve their complex issues. What’s required are ‘complex adaptive systems’ a term used by Stacey.
Michael Lawler, these distinctions may address your comments.
Søren Henrik Adam to address your question, perhaps a starting point is for people to first have a conceptual understanding of the framework and its distinctions and then to get the team to iteratively work on a Real complex business issue or a Business Improvement Project (BIP). I use my DOOR model as a framework to help teams iteratively reflect and act on a BIP. The model may help you. See - https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/20141127103742-35097022-door-to-reflection
John Robens, I emphatically agree we need to ‘embrace Chaos’ for order does emerge out of chaos—and importantly this chaos, or mess, is essential to the process.
A plug for me: I work with teams to help resolve real business issues whilst simultaneously expanding their skills and knowledge and thinking processes. Building adaptability, resilience, creativity, and productivity.
If you are interested in developing these skills further, talk to Eugene about Coaching and our Solution Focused Leadership Program, see:
Kurtz, C. and K. Snowden (2003). "The new dynamics of strategy: Sense-making in a complex and complicated world." IBM Systems Journal 42(3): 462-483.
Snowden, D. and M. Boone (2007). "A Leaders's Framework for Decision Making." Harvard Business Review(November).
Stacey, R. (2005). Experiencing emergence in organisations: Local interaction and the emergence of global pattern, Routledge.