Jump to content

Notes from the Nexus

Presence in Complexity Series #1: Reading Our Context

14 Comments / in Blog, Series / by Doug Silsbee

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.

Tags: , , , , , ,

Share this entry

14 replies
  1. Scott Simmerman
    Scott Simmerman says:

    Excellent framework. Very useful and some solid things to consider. It is also tough to chew in one bite, so I look forward to the continuing series of things and plan on re-reading this in a few minutes. Maybe this needs a contribution-thread like one sees in Facebook. Rock and Roll, and have FUN out there!

    PS – try this at 68, an age where one has generally been considering retirement when one adds two new businesses to the ongoing work and it all remains interesting and fun. I use the metaphor of herding cats and frogs a good bit to explain how things are working. Continuous continuous improvement and full engagement are useful frameworks, too!

  2. Scott Simmerman
    Scott Simmerman says:

    I had an additional thought, one with more ominous kinds of implications:

    It might appear that many in positions of leadership within government might also have these same kinds of feelings about loss of control and about not understanding the world as it is and the changes happening. Thus, they make certain kinds of laws trying to exert control and influence, with all kinds of real, unintended consequences. Take vouchers and education, which have become a mechanism for fraud in so many places. I read that 14% of the kids in South Carolina grade out on the ACT as “ready for college.” Take colleges, which have increasing pressures to raise tuitions while the world around it is going MOOC and distributed and remote.

    Take government, and all the things implemented from Snowden’s exposures on spying and technology and recording massive quantities of data around each individual. Or look at the whole mess around Medicare and ACA and drug costs and liability and environment, where certain beneficial drugs are killing small things like dung beatles which are then not dealing with animal waste in the environment and causing massive changes in the biosphere that few even notice. Ethanol. GMOs. The killing of bees. Or antibiotics use with farm animals and drug resistances then killing hundreds of thousands of people in the last decade…

    We TRY to put in policies to gain control of something that seems uncontrollable, and politicians respond to people’s wishes to control the uncontrollable, with often deadly consequences… There is a very broad application of the thoughts and ideas in your posting above. And this will probably continue to get worse and worse and things seem even more out of control of the individual.


    The world is complex.

    • Doug Silsbee
      Doug Silsbee says:

      Yes, Scott, this election and the forces exacerbated by the process will be most interesting. Agree that our response tends to be to try to control the uncontrollable. While there are important places where policy and regulations play important roles in solutions, it’s also true that in a complex environment, these policies and regs will trigger reactions from others. Every effort to control triggers a reaction from those who don’t want to be controlled.

      Building agreement and consensus requires a level of flexibility and perspective-taking that is in very short supply in the US government and population.

      We are living in the biggest social complexity experiment ever. And, of course, we are both researchers/observers in this experiment, and subjects of it.

  3. Rod Francis
    Rod Francis says:

    Another inspiring & thoughtful piece Doug and I’m certainly interested in that desire for certainty in a world which is never certain. The illusion of it (certainty) is the best we can hope for. Or we might say ‘the delusion’. How to live wholesomely and wisely with that tension is the practice for me.

    I also connected this piece to the fascitating work of Gerd Gigerenzer on the value of intuition, as opposed to cold hard reason, as a (if not the) most effective decision-making factor in the face of complexity.

  4. Fran Fisher
    Fran Fisher says:

    Thank you, Doug! I deeply appreciate you taking the lead on this conversation. For the past couple of decades (my age 72) I have been bewildered and grieving the loss of my childhood vision/dream of a harmonious, peaceful world. The reality is complexity and chaos. My “presence” work has been about learning how to BE with uncertainty. This has helped me live more fully present in the moment, grounded and centered in my faith and trust in a benevolent universe. From this state I remember to shift out of fear and welcome the breakdown as the precursor to breakthrough.

  5. Mark Crouter
    Mark Crouter says:

    It’s probably not a coincidence, but last Friday’s Washington Post had an article that addressed this somewhat differently and included these items: “It’s hard to recall another time as uncertain as this….But here’s a consoling thought: We’ve felt this way before. Many times….when we look back, we tend to see much less uncertainty — not because there necessarily was less, but because hindsight bias drains the appearance of uncertainty.” For the full article, see:

  6. Ulrike Wiethaus
    Ulrike Wiethaus says:

    Hi, what is stable in the chaos is the pregnant void, the dark space between the stars and planets (yes, my Buddhist training comes up here). I read somewhere that ancient Peruvian people had names for the deep, dark, calm spaces that were delineated by stars, planets, etc. What are our pregnant voids that are calm in chaos, always full of potential and patience?

    • Kat Nesbit
      Kat Nesbit says:

      Only us grasshopper! Us as the way we show up in response. Us as the individual choosing to be responsible to the whole. There is faith in that. There is a grandness to that. There is we and that is vast. The waves disappear. The stars become part of the pattern.

    • Scott Simmerman
      Scott Simmerman says:

      Yeah, but when we LOOKED between the stars, at those dark places, the Hubble telescope discovered billions of additional, far-away galaxies. IS there any real “black pregnant void dark calm” out there when we really look? I think we can identify something like 3000 stars with the unaided eye; there are a million million galaxies out there, each with a million million stars. And although it seems we did not elect intelligent life to the Presidency, I DO believe that there IS intelligent life out there, somewhere…


Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. […] 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. […]

Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *