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Why leaders need to know about complexity

Are you a successful leader who:

  • Is increasingly frustrated by the relentless pace of change and how that pace messes with your plans?
  • Finds your progress hampered by people with different perspectives who want to have a say in addressing your issue?
  • Finds that your usual problem solving approaches come up short?

If so, you may be facing complexity.

Why you need to learn about complexity…

Complexity is one part of the acronym VUCA. Where you find complexity you’ll usually find the other three. In this post we discuss what leaders need to do to level up and lead in environments where things are:

  • Volatile – change happens quickly and sometimes unexpectedly
  • Uncertain – predictability is rare
  • Complex – issues are multi-layered and multi-connected with lots of interdependence
  • Ambiguous – issues are hazy, contradictions and paradoxes abound.

You became a successful leader by learning how to set goals and work with others to achieve those goals. You effectively align the work of your unit or department with the overall strategic direction of the organization. This approach works well in more stable environments and when working on issues where causes and solutions are known or knowable. Unfortunately, your excellent problem solving skills don’t help in complexity. In fact, they are probably getting in your way.

Today things are moving very quickly and there are many different players and perspectives. As a consequence is harder to identify the clear cause of an issue, set specific, achievable goals or predict a clear solution. Because of today’s fast pace and uncertainty, leaders need different skill sets, over and above their successful problem solving approaches.

Leaders need different skill sets

To lead effectively in complexity leaders need to engage in new ways – not as fixers or solution finders – rather as curious listeners who can:

  • See the system in which an issue sits and the dynamics of that system
  • Invite and listen deeply to the perspectives of stakeholders in the system
  • Cultivate synergistic (mutually beneficial) relationships across the system
  • Create a vision of direction and momentum rather than a precise destination
  • Foster an environment of experimentation and learning
  • Maintain a calm, centred self in the midst of the messiness of VUCA .

Are you ready?

Leading in complexity isn’t for everyone. Some of us prefer to work in predictable environments where our expertise can be tapped to improve the efficiency of processes. Some of us prefer to work with others to improve the effectiveness of how things are done and create predictable futures. Organizations need several kinds of leaders.

If you find yourself confident in leading change teams yet frustrated that there are circumstances where your usual problem solving doesn’t work well, you are probably ready to level up to lead in complexity. As with every other step on the leadership development ladder, you need to be ready to give up some things that have worked well for you in the past to make room for new skills and perspectives.

Where to begin?

There are 3 things you can do to begin:

  1. First, learn the distinctions between complex conditions and more ordered (complicated and obvious) circumstances. A good place to start is to learn about the Cynefin framework. This framework, designed by David Snowden, helps us look at different situations and sort out our best leadership approaches. See the Resources section below for 2 videos – the first from CognitiveEdge by Snowden and another by complexity leadership specialist Jennifer Garvey Berger.
  2. After watching the videos, make a list of the significant leadership challenges you are facing.
    • i) For each issue, make a note about whether it is more a complicated issue, or more of a complex issue.
    • ii) If an issue is a mixture of complicated and complex, mark which elements are more complex.
    • iii) Review the list of complicated issues – here you will need to use analytic, problem solving approaches.
    • iv) For the complex issues – your best place to start is by looking at the system – how are elements of the system connected? Which connections are functioning well? What small experiment might you do to improve connections in the system?
  3. Begin to use the language of complexity explicitly in your work. When working in fast paced and demanding teams it’s enormously helpful to use the same terms to describe an issue. Many of us use the terms “complex” and “complicated” indiscriminately and interchangeably. The difference is important. Use “complex” when you’re faced with an issue with many connections and interdependencies, and unpredictable outcomes. Use “complicated” when analysis by relevant experts can identify a clear cause and predict a specific outcome.

Boot Camp

If you think you’re ready to experiment with a new way of leading, our Lead in Complexity Boot Camp may be for you. This 8-module self-study program will introduce you to the basics of leading in complexity.


CognitiveEdge. (2010). The Cynefin Framework. [Video 8:37]. https://bit.ly/1toxtC9

Cultivating Leadership. (2017). Making Sense of Complexity – an introduction to Cynefin. [Video 4:07]. https://bit.ly/2CoPmgr

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November 22, 2019
 © Copyright 2018 ~ Lead in Complexity. All rights reserved. Website by niki campbell
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