Presence in Complexity Series #1: Reading Our Context

Because we don’t know how to navigate this terrain, we tend to double down on what we’ve always done in an effort to re-establish our inner sense of a competent self.

Because we don’t know how to navigate this terrain, we tend to double down on what we’ve always done in an effort to re-establish our inner sense of a competent self.

It’s most people’s experience that the world we live in is changing rapidly. We experience it as “VUCA,” a term coined by the acronym-favoring military at the end of the 80’s to describe the emerging post-Cold War world. The acronym stands for Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous, the intensity of which has increased dramatically since the term was invented.

Great. So we have a name for a world we experience as overwhelming! So what?

This is not the world that our education was generally designed to prepare us for, nor the world that traditional narratives about success teach us that we should be able to largely control and direct according to our wishes. It’s the world we actually live in. And we need new ways to make sense of it.

In my schools there was a right answer. I thought if I was smart enough I would figure it out. When I got the right answer I felt good, and was rewarded with external validation in the form of praise and grades. When I didn’t…  well, not so much.

The conventional narrative is work hard, be honest, build our skills, treat people well, and things will more or less go according to our wishes. Now though, we notice increasingly that doing the right things doesn’t necessarily produce the results we expected.

In fact, there’s a greater and greater dissonance between the world we have prepared to inhabit and the world that actually exists. A growing gap between our reasonable expectations that we can control much of our worlds, and the disturbing evidence that we can’t control much at all. This dissonance is part of what is fueling angry anti-establishment political movements.

Further, we can feel that it’s our fault. We sometimes think we only need to tighten down. Work harder. Build our leadership or technical competencies. Get more power so we are finally in charge. Then, somehow, the ship would right itself and we’d be able to sail more or less on course to what James Flaherty calls “the island where everything works out.”

This is actually wrong. Our internalized and instinctive responses to changing conditions are often wrong. Doubling down to do more what we’ve always done is usually anti-helpful.

The most useful starting point towards a radically new way of leading is actually a new way of seeing the world. It means being present to what is real, instead of being surprised and reactive when it differs from what we expect.

In a classic Harvard Business Review article, Dave Snowden proposes four domains. These broad distinctions begin to build a vocabulary for observing and navigating a new reality that is radically different from what we have prepared for. And, they support new ways to organize ourselves as leaders.

These domains are:

  • Obvious (Snowden uses the term Simple.) This is the domain of predictable, straightforward action. Cause and effect is known, and we can safely assume that if we take a certain action, our desired results will follow. Changing the tire on the car, delegating a project to a competent direct report, sitting down to a family dinner.
  • Complicated. Here, cause and effect is predictable, but we don’t necessarily know how to do it. With the right expertise (which we can presumably find) we can create an optimal solution, but there are lots of interrelated elements in a solution that have to be considered for the best results. Diagnosing a subtle engine problem, prioritizing tasks in a complicated workflow, planning an elaborate menu for a dinner party with multiple dietary restrictions.
  • Complex. In this domain, cause and effect are not predictable. There are many interrelated factors that are unknown, and some things in the system affect other things in ways that are not possible to predict. The harder we push, the more unanticipated side effects tend to appear. Others behave in ways that don’t make sense to us. Driving through rush hour when the optimal route is constantly changing, building commitment in a team to a new and challenging project, a family reunion where some of the people dislike each other.
  • Chaotic. Here, events are disconnected, and seem to appear at random. There is no apparent cause and effect at all, and phenomena are coming at us faster than we can react or make sense. There’s no time to process, and patterns are not visible to us. A truck runs a red light in front of us and we careen to avoid it, an all hands emergency meeting is called in the middle of our team planning session, a fistfight breaks out at the family reunion.

If we misread the context, and act from wrong assumptions, we will find ourselves expending lots of energy and getting poor results.

For example, if we log onto Waze to obtain crowd-sourced traffic flow to drive to the store on a Sunday morning with no traffic (responding to an Obvious context with a Complex solution,) our kids will think we are trying to be cool but are actually being ridiculous. This is low cost but illustrative.

However, if we need to build team commitment to a challenging project (Complex) but treat it as if it were simply a matter of re-prioritizing tasks (Complicated) we will be rightly seen as tone-deaf, controlling and simplistic. Much bigger cost.

In complexity, we find our sense of our own competence challenged. Because we don’t know how to navigate this terrain, we tend to double down on what we’ve always done in an effort to re-establish our inner sense of a competent self. (The effects of this on our own identity are the topic of the next post!)

Building our literacy at staying present, sensing the context, and then acting consistently with what the context is asking of us, is the art of leadership.

  • What challenge are you facing that is confronting you with the limitations of what you can control?
  • What components of this challenge are Obvious, Complicated, and Complex, or Chaotic?
  • How do these distinctions help you make sense of the situation?

This is the first of a series of blog posts on the topic of presence and complexity. Please comment below, and share with others.

And, for more great resources on this subject, see the blog of my dear friends and colleagues, Carolyn Coughlin and Jennifer Garvey Berger and Jennifer’s book, Simple Habits, co-authored with Keith Johnston.