We are a complex lot. Seemingly small things can have a great impact on us, and context is everything. Workplace relationships are not particularly rational at times, and there are no general rules that apply to all situations. To questions that arise from this complexity there are no clear answers. Yet, we often try to find them. We turn to tools and models that have worked for us in the past. However, these practices often assume a right answer can be found; that a logical, rational way to progress is possible. We make predictions and plan and take action that assumes tasks can be reasonably broken down to produce controllable outcomes. But, more and more of what worked in the past is not working. What do we do when this happens?
People are often promoted because they have been good at the technical or operational aspects of their jobs. Too often promotional decisions about relationship skills are inferred from prior technical expertise. However, the mix between operation/technical skills and strategic concerns shifts as people rise within an organisation. Those that don’t understand or recognise the shift in the mix or haven’t developed skills to deal with them may find themselves experiencing tension in their new roles and struggle when they attempt to apply tried-and-tested skills that led to the successes of their past. They find it far more difficult than when their understanding of their workplaces was limited to the merely ‘complicated’ levels of detail. Managing within a complex organisation as if it were nothing more than complicated has caused serious and expensive mistakes because, in a complex environment, even small decisions can have surprising effects due to the increased possibility for unintended consequences.
The knowledge of how to plan and direct amid this increased complexity hasn’t filtered the thinking of most of today’s executives or some of the schools that teach tomorrow’s managers. However, emerging trends in professional development have involved focusing on how to operate within complex systems.
Few people are aware of the maps or patterns that drive their behaviours. To develop adaptive skills essential to being an effective leader requires that programs be designed, developed and delivered with a clear alignment to the volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous (VUCA) environment in which we now find ourselves. ‘One-size-fits-all’ leadership programs don’t recognise this complexity. Instead, programs need to focus on development, rather than training.
A leadership approach needs to increase the learner’s skills in anticipating and responding to changes in their environment, unlock their innovative potential and increase their ability to engage and collaborate with others. It recognises leadership as a practice involving more than just changing behaviour and thinking. It seeks to have the leader/learner examine their identity and the impact of their actions on others.
We don’t ‘solve’ people. Consequently, in addition to knowing how to solve complicated problems, leadership programs must focus on developing skills in facing complex challenges. This involves developing skills in undertaking cycles of reflection, planning, taking action and observing. Being able to observe ourselves doing this is instrumental in developing the transformational skills that help us as leaders find strength to show moral courage and independent judgement.
Developing leadership skills to operate amid complexity involves participants learning how to challenge their existing values and assumptions so that they may shift their behaviours, beliefs or values. It involves a shift in identity enabling individuals to consciously apply different practices and behaviours. It is a ‘build once, use many times’ approach.
As Jennifer Garvey Berger and Keith Johnston discuss in their upcoming book, Simple Habits for Complex Times (Stanford University Press), in complex situations, leaders must concentrate on the present more than the future, look more toward the possible than the probable, and conduct small-scale experiments to learn what might work. By taking multiple perspectives, asking different questions, and seeing more of the system within which they work, leaders can better understand themselves, their role, and the world around them. As they grow, these habits enhance their performance and enable them to solve increasingly common, sticky business issues with greater acumen.