Leadership and complexity

If you have ever been for an eye test, you will know that the optician will have you look through a contraption with lots of lenses, and then proceed to add and take away lenses until your vision can see the letters on the chart precisely.  They will spend time experimenting with the lenses and asking you to say which of two is clearer: “better number one? or number two?…..number three clearer and smaller? or number four?”  By the time they are finished, they are able to say whether you need new glasses or whether the lenses you have been using are still optimal.  Because shifts in our eyes occur in such minute increments, it’s not until I have a chance to see the world through a new set of lenses that I know if I’ve actually been seeing what is in front of me or if it’s been a good-enough approximation.  I know that when I first walked out of the optician’s office at the age of 16 with my first pair of glasses and saw the world as it actually was, I was overjoyed to be able to see clearly and I was able to respond to my world quite differently. I could no longer, then, imagine the world looked as I used to think it did.

The time has come for us to check whether the way we view our workplaces and organisations is still current or if we need to upgrade our lenses.  Since the Industrial Revolution, we have been viewing organisations, and indeed, our whole world, as a machine.  This seems reasonable, as the Industrial Revolution was about mechanisation after all, so for its time, a mechanistic view of the world was a leap in our thinking.  We have now advanced well into the Knowledge Age, however, and it is time to update our lenses to take account of new knowledge and new research around Complex Adaptive Systems (CAS), as well as our actual experiences which point to ‘mechanism’ being an inadequate world view.  Looking at our organisations (and the world) purely as machines has outlived its usefulness.  However, we have got so used to seeing the world through these old lenses that it is hard to see it otherwise.  This is no excuse to do nothing, though; it is simply learned ignorance.  When it became clear that Copernicus, Kepler and Galileo were right and that the sun was, in fact, the centre of the solar system, only the foolish and the stubborn could continue to believe and operate otherwise.

Research and experience are now proving that the old cause-and-effect, mechanistic paradigm of organisations is not entirely accurate nor adequate and that our workplaces are actually organic, dynamic, ever-evolving complex systems.

A new leadership paradigm, however, will not throw the baby out with the bathwater.  Paradigm shifts do not simply dispense with the old to make way for the new; they include, incorporate and transcend.  The new leadership paradigm will take account of and include the mechanistic, command-and-control perspective, while incorporating new discoveries into how complex adaptive systems actually operate.  There will still be times when a mechanistic leadership view holds true.  This perspective takes the line that if I tell someone what to do and they do it, then the outcomes will be as I have planned and as I predict.  If all the parts of the machine work as they are supposed to and as previously agreed upon, the machine will function smoothly and efficiently.  Exhaustive policies and procedures, highly detailed strategic plans, lengthy job descriptions and KPI’s; all of these are artefacts of the Industrial Age.  And during times of natural disaster, say, I want civil defence organisations to respond quickly and efficiently, so command-and-control will probably be incredibly beneficial.  Similarly, when operating a public transport network, I want my local authority to emphasise order, reliability and consistency over experimentation and autonomy: in contexts such as these, there will be commonly agreed outcomes and end-goals will not be competing, so it seems sensible for an organisation and the people within it to operate with clockwork regularity.  The important point is that running like clockwork will only be desired in specific contexts.

For many, many contexts in the Knowledge Age, however, the machine analogy is not so useful.

Leadership in the Knowledge Age is not about trying to simplify the complex so that it fits into an old world view; it is about developing the capability to manage (and manage ourselves) in the complex.  We now know enough about CAS that it behoves us and our leaders to adapt to this new understanding.  Complexity Leadership Theory tells us that the behaviour of a CAS emerges from the interactions between all its elements, i.e. the people.  While management can put plans and hierarchies in place, how optimally an organisation operates will be a function of connectivity, creativity, flexibility and experimentation.  When this is the case, the most sustainable leadership strategy is learning.  By learning, I mean deep learning; not simply knowledge about.  The imperative is for leaders to make a real quantum shift and to transform themselves so that their attitudes and behaviours are meaningfully and authentically changed.  The things to learn are:

  • Flexibility, adaptability and spontaneity-There must be greater ease and comfort in being in the messiness of the ‘unknown’.  Solving complex problems requires divergent and creative thinking; many of our current challenges cannot be met in a linear paradigm.  This means that leaders must look inward and grow themselves as people.  These are not capabilities you can fake.  It takes courage and grit and a willingness to look at your own inner workings.
  • Experimentation and reflection-There will be less ‘telling people what to do’ and more openness to innovation and reflection upon what happens when something novel is applied.  This means constantly being in a state of readiness to challenge the status quo and to challenge others to do the same.  This means being un-attached to old ways of operating.  This also means looking at what gets created in the system when something new is tried.  An intelligent approach to experimentation underscores reflection, otherwise how can knowledge and information flows, connectivity and authority be tweaked and adjusted as you make your way to optimal outcomes?
  • Systems thinking-When it’s less about ‘telling’ and more about ‘influencing’, it is vital to be able to see your wider system, its interconnectedness and its emergent dynamic. Old-style hierarchies do not solely dictate how we get people to do things any more.  Being a systems thinker is also not just about being able to see the big picture.  It’s about being able to see both the big picture and the finer details.  A systems thinker will ‘helicopter’ in and out as needs and context demand, and then synthesise the data from both of these in the quest for answers.
  • Creativity-I throw my support behind Dr. Mark Batey’s assertion that creativity is humankind’s ultimate resource.  It is the arch-substance.  In this YouTube interview, he advocates a more conscious approach to developing and nurturing creativity, leaving space for intelligent failure.

So, to conclude, dear readers, it’s time for an “I” test.

  • How comfortable am I with ambiguity and the unknown?
  • Am I capable of being both a military commander and an orchestra conductor?  How would I know when the context requires each of these?
  • When I meet a challenge, what do I assume and how far do I go to ‘unpeel layers of the onion skin’ to find patterns, interconnectedness and hidden meaning?
  • What do I actively do to cultivate creativity: my own and others’?


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