"It’s totally possible that this task of leading in times as complex and volatile as today is a bigger stretch for us humans than anything we’ve ever had to do."
In a world of VUCA—volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity—how do we lead in a way that will make a real difference? How do we navigate the complexity? We are drawn—because of the ways our minds are structured—to seek neat and clear solutions in the midst of complexity. We do this even when we know, if we are honest with ourselves, that those solutions are probably unlikely to succeed.
Jennifer Garvey Berger (author of Changing on the Job, another excellent book!) and Keith Johnston do two things in this book that are equally useful. First, they help us to understand what complexity means and just why things really are so different now. They help us to understand why and when our typical ways of approaching problems no longer work for us. Then, they offer up a set of practical and accessible tools—or habits—that can help us to navigate that complexity. By framing the book with stories of a non-profit and a for-profit company struggling with complex challenges—the habits become tangible and we can see how they can be applied in real-life situations.
The habits themselves—asking different questions, seeking multiple perspectives, and seeing the system—are simple, powerful and multi-layered. By the time you’ve read the book, you’ll see how those habits can be applied and what a difference they can make.
The Nature of Complexity
"In a complex system…we’re not looking to predict or control the future because we have no idea what that will be like (it’s unpredictable.)"
A key distinction that Garvey and Johnston suggest, based on the work of a complexity theorist named David Snowden, is between that which is probable and that which is possible. If something can be predicted, if you can figure out what is probable, you can also make a guess about the future that is highly reliable—and figure out a clear path to get there. The path can be simple or complicated—depending on how simple or complicated a problem it is. For a simple problem, there could be a best practice solution—for a complicated problem you can research and design a solution that will enable you to get from where you are today to where you need to go.
The problem is that there are a host of things we deal with (now more than ever!) that are not nearly so clear. We don’t know what is probable—because we’re not in predictable space anymore. There’s nothing neat and tidy about the situation. We don’t know if the actions we take will make the problem better. We can spend a lot of money, time and effort—and get nothing or even see things get worse. No matter how much we try or want it to be otherwise—in these situations we can’t predict the outcome—while a lot of things are possible, nothing is actually probable. This is complexity.
When we put in place a neat and clear process and don’t get the results we want it’s likely because we’re treating something complex as if it’s complicated. If you think about big global issues—environmental and economic—or issues that you’re dealing with in your organization that seem to defy attempts to solve through new processes, no matter how sophisticated (leadership issues, employee engagement issues, changes in strategy) you’re in the realm of the complex.
Learning to navigate complexity looks very different and requires different things of us than solving problems that are complicated.
Designing Safe-to-Fail Experiments
"A safe-to-fail experiment…takes what is happening today and tries to change it a little in a desired direction rather than picturing the ideal future and building the steps toward it."
What’s liberating about recognizing that something is complex rather than complicated is that you can let go of the idea that there is one right solution to the “problem” or that there is an “ideal future state.” By definition, there isn’t. There’s no set of steps, no matter how elegant or complicated, no one process, that will “fix” things when we are in the domain of complexity. Instead, our job is to look at the present, see what is actually happening in the system, and then come up with simple and safe experiments that we can try out to see if we can make the system work better in some way.
The beauty of safe-to-fail experiments is that failure and success are equally valuable. Experiments are designed to be doable, to ensure that nothing bad can really happen, and to make the results visible so that you can actually learn from them. Safe-to-fail experiments start small—and can ramp up if they work well or ramp down if they aren’t working. Learning from failures can lead to new experiments—and are just as valuable as successes.
Because safe-to-fail experiments require a safe to learn environment—both to design them and to execute them—organizations need to cultivate the capacity of their members. People must learn to give and receive feedback.
Ask: How could I be wrong about this?
"The human mind…is designed for simplicity. To do well in uncertainty and ambiguity we’ll need to dial down our reflexes and dial up new habits."
While each of the habits of mind is part of a whole—and none are more important than the others—the “different” question of “could I be wrong?” is a powerful one that taps into a number of biases of our minds that get in the way of our seeing what is really in front of us. The authors share some of the research about the nature of these biases such as our tendency to see only what we’re looking for or that we want to find (recall the gorilla experiment.)
These biases demonstrate, powerfully, that our sense of certainty is not a result of our actually knowing and being right, it comes from the fact that our brains crave and work to create certainty. Once we can really “get” this idea, then we can counter that tendency by learning to ask, regularly, what could we be wrong about? What might we be missing? What perspective have we not sought out? What could we do to find out more?
Consider how a situation that you’re currently looking at as complicated might actually be complex. Think about whether you’re trying to apply a single answer to a question that doesn’t have one. What might you do differently?
I strongly recommend that you read and use this book as a guide in your journey to becoming a leader who understands and embraces complexity. It can make the journey of leadership more interesting, more effective and perhaps, paradoxically, a little less scary.