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Upgrade: Building your capacity for complexity

by Richard Boston & Karen Ellis

I liked this book from the beginning. It’s well written, has clear explanations, uses case studies to illustrate concepts and is well referenced. I recommend it for leaders ready to expand their abilities to be effective in complex situations.

Core idea

The authors present 4 capacities that we already have, that, if developed in an intentional way, could expand our ability to lead in complexity. The book is offered as a diagnostic guide and practice handbook for the 4 capacities.


The core capacities are based on adult development theories. These theories (sometimes called vertical development) grew from early work in the late 20th century and expanded in the first decades of the 21st century (Loevinger, Cook-Greuter, Rooke & Torbert, Kegan and others).  As our world becomes more complex, leaders and OD practitioners are beginning to look to developmental theory for next steps. This theory isn’t always easy to bring into practice, particularly beyond the “usual” approaches to developing leaders at conventional levels. The 4 capacities are offered as those that make the biggest difference when dealing with complexity.

Why call this an upgrade?

The authors’ comparison of learning about complexity to upgrading our operating system is very helpful. If you’ve ever had a 5-year-old phone and tried to add a new app, you’ll understand the challenge – most new apps won’t work on an outdated operating system. And… the old apps start to slow down and become less effective as the operating system loses its ability to run new software.

Building capacity to lead in complexity is not merely a matter of adding a new skill (app) to your usual leadership operating system. Instead, the very nature of complexity demands that we upgrade our basic operating system – how we see the world, how we show up as leaders, our ability to take different perspectives and our ability to hold opposing ideas. While the analogy works, unfortunately upgrading your complexity operating system is not as easy nor as quick as upgrading your phone (darn!).

Learning Design

A strength I see in this book is the consistent learning design for all upgrades: assess where you are now, begin with individual reflection (using focused questions), then guided dialogue with others (inquiry) followed by experiments where you try out your new learning in real work situations.

The visual capacity-o-meter (my new word) helps make concrete and visual where we begin, where we want to go and where we are along the journey. The capacity map includes liminal (in-between) spaces, recognizing that the journey from one level to another is a transition. We don’t jump between levels in clear, decisive steps. Rather, the in-between spaces help us recognize that expanding our capacities occurs over time, with attention and practice. And… at any time in our development we may be operating from more than one level.

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The 4 capacities

The names of the capacities are probably familiar to you:

  • Sense making – what on earth is going on here?
  • Perspective shifting – what more can I see when I step back and back and back from my own first-person perspective?
  • Self-relating – how could I best show up here?
  • Opposable thinking – how do I best respond to dilemmas and conflicting views regarding the nature of the problem and how to proceed?

The authors make a good argument why we need these capacities, with reference to VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous) conditions and Snowden’s Cynefin framework.

The book is thorough and detailed. Each capacity merits a chapter with somewhere between 25 and 35 pages of descriptions of each level within the capacity, case studies and self-assessment. The corresponding practice chapters are approximately 20 pages each, with reflection, inquiry and experiments for each level of upgrade. It’s all very good.

How to use the book

I will use the book myself and with others. Given how fast we’re all moving these days, and how much we have on our plates, I would like a somewhat easier entry to the material. There’s so much good info here and it’s so user friendly once you get in, that I would facilitate a specific starting point for each client.

One approach could be to have the client begin by reading the first 3 chapters to orient themselves to the material. Using the summary descriptions of each of the capacities, ask the client to rank their current strengths and indicate where they’d like to begin. This supports choice for learning and brings some focus to what could appear as a daunting learning journey. Once an entry point is made, I would recommend reading the descriptive chapter, completing the self-assessment and starting on the practice. Learners would proceed through the 4 capacities in their preferred order.

For example:

  1. In the chart below, rank your current strengths with the capacities from 1 to 4, using 1 as your strongest.
  2. In the last column, rank the capacities again, from 1 to 4, with 1 as the capacity you wish to develop first.
  3. Once you’ve determined a place to start, read the descriptive chapter on that capacity in the book, then proceed to the upgrade (practice) chapter.
Capacity* Strength  To develop
You’re relying on perspective shifting whenever you’re trying to understand the subjective perspectives of others.
You’re relying on self-relating when you’re managing, in the moment, the influence on your behaviour of your habitual ways of thinking, feeling and responding.
You’re relying on opposable thinking when you’re attempting to examine your own thinking – to notice when your beliefs are keeping you stuck, when you are ‘disagreeing’ with yourself internally or when you find yourself in conflict with others.
You’re relying on sense making when you’re attempting to solve complex problems, particularly when those problems are also laced with volatility, uncertainty or ambiguity.

*Capacity descriptions abbreviated from pages: 86, 113, 142, and 176.

Next steps

This is a thorough and (mostly) easy to use book. It will be valuable for individual leaders yet given the nature and scope of the level descriptions and development practices, it would probably be best used in collaboration with a learning partner, coach or mentor.

There is some material on using the book with teams with promises of more to come in a follow up book. I will definitely look for that one!

Highly recommended for serious students of leading in complexity.

For more info see Richard Boston’s Upgrade webpage.

November 25, 2019
 © Copyright 2018 ~ Lead in Complexity. All rights reserved. Website by niki campbell
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