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Understanding Complexity for Wise and Effective Leadership

I subscribe to the magazine of a prominent U.S. business school because I find the editors/authors frequently capture the zeitgeist of current challenges for organizations and offer useful guidance for our coaching and consulting clients, packaged in easily digestible articles for their consumption and learning. However, in reading several articles dedicated to leadership in a recent issue what struck me was that these articles were responding to a perceived need to act effectively in uncertain, unpredictable, and ambiguous environments with adaptability and flexibility. Yet, these same articles did not reflect a deep understanding of complexity and how to account for that complexity in leadership behavior, decision-making, organizational change, and other critical management processes. Evidenced by these articles and other experiences, it appears that the management and leadership community, including practitioner’s journals, are grasping the challenge of complexity (following on the footsteps of COVID-19 pandemic, wars in Europe and the Middle East, climate change, the Black Lives Matter and the LGBQT+ movements, the impact of social media platforms, migrant crises, and other on-going disruptive issues); nevertheless, this grasp does not include a convincing paradigm shift (to use a well-worn but apt term) in an understanding of reality, causality and strategy, a shift sufficient to offer new language, heuristics, and processes that make sense and work in complex environments.

Of course, there was value in the articles (and I’m going to maintain my subscription).
For example, a 2×2 matrix explained in one of the articles was designed to help leaders distinguish between different types of challenges and there was discussion of the importance of sensemaking, pattern recognition, and vigilance, important behaviors in complex systems. However, there was not an exploration of the nature of the overall environment – whether ordered or unordered (to what extent we can see cause and effect relationships) and what impact the nature of the system would have on assumptions and, by extension, processes that should be adopted to underpin effective inquiry and action in each of the quadrants.

Many of the articles in this issue referenced the complexity we face, as well as diverse threads of the language of unpredictability that is emerging in the field. There were words like “unfolding events” (which could refer to uncertainty, unpredictable, unanticipated, and non-linear) and “ambiguity.” However, fundamentally there was a lack of appreciation for what I would call a science-based foundation, an understanding and approach that draws from the current knowledge we do have about systems, interactions, uncertainty, systems change, leadership, and other social processes. Our inquires and interventions, if responsible, need to be multi-disciplinary and include complexity science integrated with recent discoveries in neuroscience and adult development which impact greatly our understanding of decision-making. This knowledge has critical real-world implications for businesses and all organizational processes. I argue that accounting for this understanding and knowledge in our leadership and team and organizational interventions is critical to our effectiveness, our capacity to achieve real world outcomes, to move in a direction that makes sense strategically for our teams and organizations and the common good.

I’d like to emphasize why this is important to those in my audience who may not yet be convinced. The decisions we make in our choice of actions and the design of interventions supporting leadership, within our teams, and for our organizations either increase or decrease the probability of success. If we are not making decisions based on an exploration and understanding of why we are experiencing the effects we see – whether they are positive or negative, leading us toward or away from the direction we aspire to — we are simply guessing or imitating what others are doing or what we have absorbed by osmosis in the current zeitgeist and glops of memes, platitudes, and superficial advice floating about. For example, simply following a pattern that has worked successfully for others in a different situation is not advisable in that it does not take into consideration the context of the current set of challenges, including the interdependent constraints of culture and norms.

To design and execute strategy with some probability of success, we need to explore the nature of the situation, the context, interdependencies, and dynamics we are dealing with. We need to draw from the most up-to-date knowledge across the applicable disciplines, e.g., social sciences, anthropology, biology, neuroscience, and physics and construct a language, processes, and tools to apply this knowledge.

What I notice is that much of what is promoted under the auspices of management and leadership frameworks and guidance adheres to a set of outdated assumptions. Firstly, guided by Newtonian mechanics, we default to unexamined assumptions about causality (mechanical, efficient cause and effect relationships only) and corresponding ideas about predictability and control, even outside Newtonian science’s range of explanatory power, e.g., the causality of context — the interdependent constraints that govern but do not determine behavior in an organization. Secondly, a Cartesian rationality which clearly separates the mind from the body which has been disproved by research in neuroscience that demonstrates that our emotions are constructed. They emerge from an interconnected mind and body within a social reality, relating to culture and upbringing. The other tendency which is especially prevalent in the U.S. is to default to causal explanations at the individual level, rather than taking into consideration organizational-, institutional-, and cultural-level explanations and causality. Examining all these assumptions would profoundly alter our view of systems level transformation and leadership development and so transform how we approach organizational change, leadership development, and strategic planning and execution.

In our coaching and consulting, we present the client with different perspectives and processes, ways of thinking about themselves and their environment and acting within their world. We emphasize the importance of sense-making, experimentation, and complexity to decision-making and strategic doing and endeavor to do this in a language that clients understand to bring them closer to meeting the objectives they have established for themselves. For about 20 years, I have drawn from multiple disciplines in my approach to teaching, coaching, and consulting – using especially a foundation of complexity science and adult development, first in my work with senior leaders in national security during the mid- and late-2000’s and then in my coaching and consulting approach abroad and upon returning to the U.S., based in the Washington DC area in the context of multiple industries and sectors. Presently, I am working with the Fénix Leadership & Development team to redesign our website to illustrate more explicitly the relationships between complexity science and other domains and our approach and offerings. I am now collaborating with theorists and practitioners working in anthro-complexity, many associated with the Cynefin Company.

I know I have covered a lot of territory in this communication. However, if there ever was a time when we needed individually and collectively to see ourselves, others, and the world around us differently and more deeply and use all our wisdom, knowledge, and the instruments at our disposal, it is now. For 20 years, I have believed that what complexity science offers us is a more viable, expansive, and rigorous view of ourselves and the world and causality and, as such, is full of possibility for effective action. I continue in my commitment to this belief.

In subsequent blogs I will speak more specifically about frameworks, tools, and processes that can be useful to approach your team’s and organization’s challenges.
The Fénix team is busy re-designing our website to reflect more about this. Please hold us accountable to this commitment. If we know some are watching or waiting, we will be more apt to move ahead in this work promptly.

Photo ID:  Approaching Storm, Gila, New Mexico

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