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Presence in Complexity Series #8: Scaling Awareness

Complexity is unpredictable. Our world responds to good intentions and common sense actions with perverse and unintended consequences. Our noblest efforts fail to accomplish what we believe we should be able to accomplish. This is of course a huge challenge to our sense of self!

And, it’s not personal!

Complexity is actually normal

Complexity is actually normal. Even when cause and effect relationships are invisible. And, even when people with different motivations, and our own competing commitments, derail what we intend.

Guess what? There really are alternatives to working longer, pushing harder, concentrating more, or finding just the right experts to advise us (all of which are brilliant and useful strategies in certain contexts.)

Leadership techniques such as project management tools, performance management systems, outcome-based planning and complicated strategy development also have their place. However, in complexity, traditional tools often fail to produce the desired results, distorting our view and assuming a level of cause and effect correlation that simply isn’t there. And, they ignore feedback loops, polarities, competing commitments and other inherent complexities that derive from the human condition.

in complexity, traditional tools often fail to produce the desired results, distorting our view and assuming a level of cause and effect correlation that simply isn’t there.

Action in a complexity context is less about directing and engineering a process towards our desired outcomes. It is more about establishing an overall direction, discerning the present state of the system and the dynamics as best we can see them, stabilizing our internal condition, and facilitating a collective exploration of this context along with others who can help with the discernment of what we might invite to come forward.

In complexity, a different approach to leading is more likely to provide learning, build resilience, and and to evoke new responses from the system around us.

Leaders can cultivate spaciousness within themselves, focusing on the creation of conditions that make desired futures more likely

Leaders can cultivate spaciousness within themselves, focusing on the creation of conditions that make desired futures more likely.

Probing, taking multiple perspectives, experimenting, questioning and embracing “not knowing” can often both gather really useful information about how the system behaves as well as actually tweak the system in useful ways.

Consider these strategies for acting in your complexity context:

  • Normalize complexity. Have real conversations about how complexity is different. Share experiences and feelings. Engage the people in your system about their experience of unpredictability and uncertainty, and normalize it. It’s astounding what a relief it can be when people begin to understand that nobody actually could know what the solution is! We are right where we should be, and we can engage together to explore and discover what’s next.
  • Center yourself. Having done the inner work to be able to de-couple your own inner state from the stresses of your context, act in ways that support the others in your system in doing the same. A group of healthy, smart, creative people who are able to maintain a pocket of sanity and perspective in the midst of a crazy system can accomplish great things. Leadership is largely about building a culture; culture starts with what we embody and model.
  • Design and conduct safe-to-fail experiments: Conduct small scale, cheap, interesting experiments that are designed to explore how the system works, and that can be amplified if they do something worthwhile, or recovered from quickly if they don’t work. These experiments reveal things about the way the system works. Examples: hold the Monday meeting standing up for a month. Encourage a set of employees to work from home one day a week. Crowd-source logos for a new business, offering a small prize for the winner.
  • Organize around direction, not goals. Specific, measurable goals can drive organizing and planning. They also tend to narrow possibilities to one track towards the future. They become standards against which we measure ourselves in ways that actually reduce creativity and blind us to complexity dynamics. It is helpful to articulate an overall direction (e.g., better responsiveness to customer complaints, increased competency at delegating key tasks, more innovative product pipelines) and then to hold the focus on this overall direction while we experiment and amplify what seems to be working.

    Organize around direction, not goals

The usual ways of leading are often ineffective or even counter productive in complex environments. It actually can be tremendously liberating to be able to name this, to recognize that we’ve been spending too much energy in approaches that actually don’t work, and to play with a more spacious and wise way of leading that recognizes the dynamics of complexity. What if leading could in fact be both easier and more successful?

Consider these questions. Then change something, take some new action, or have a different conversation:

  • How are you seeking to drive or engineer change in ways that, if you’re really honest with yourself, aren’t working so well?
  • With whom could you have a conversation about these ideas?
  • What simple, “safe-to-fail experiment” might you try in your system? Who would play? What might you learn?