More than ever before, our businesses operate in an unpredictable global business landscape. Some companies falter whilst others thrive. Why?

Amongst other things, thriving organisations fully embrace the complexity they face and have learned to be responsive to the ways complex dynamics unfold. But it’s no easy feat. Today, the ability to lead in complexity is a crucial leadership skill and those leaders who are adaptive enough to shift their habitual ways of leading will increasingly find themselves in demand. But how do leaders make this adaptive shift? It starts with mindset. Here are three such shifts in mindset that today’s leaders will have to make in order to tackle the complexity we now all face.

Mindset Shift #1 – Shedding mechanistic thinking

Each of us functions from an underlying assumption about how the world works. It informs everything we think and everything we do. For most of us, we acquire this mental model through a lifetime of operating in a culture that takes certain things for granted. In the West, one such taken-for-granted is that organisations operate as machines. It’s from this basic assumption that we design organisations assuming they can be controlled based on our wants, see empirical data as the holy grail of decision making, and assume clear chains of cause and effect. Success, it follows, results from measures, procedures and controls.

Trying to tackle complex issues by applying mechanistic approaches usually leaves us wondering why such issues seem immune to change. Working with complex problems requires us to see things not as if they were cogs in a mechine-like wheel but as an interconnected system that has its own way of adapting to all of the myriad actions of everyone within it. Pattern order emerges through self-organisation in systems, such as when people ignore procedures that don’t work in favour of their own home-made solutions.

If we are to properly understand complexity we must begin by looking at things as wholes rather than parts and concentrate our attention at the organisational level. Our focus moves to how things act and interact holistically rather than breaking them down into constituent parts.

Mindset shift 2 # Giving up the illusion of control 

Gaining and exercising control is, for many, an attractive part of being an executive. Indeed, if we look to most management and leadership approaches, they’re usually created for the purpose of control.

Because we are unable to control what we don’t understand, we are naturally drawn to simplification in order to move into action. Indeed, our minds are actually designed for complexity reduction. Yet doing so leads us to diagnose problems wrongly, create strategies that become obsolete and implement plans that don’t solve the problems we thought we had. It’s a key reason why we grab hold of the latest management fad which promises a panacea.

In many of the Executive Teams that I work with, admitting that you don’t know the answer to something is a risky move. But the very act of admitting you are starting from a place of not knowing can open up the possibility of creatively exploring the issue. By allowing yourself and your people the space to ‘not know’ is the beginning of genuine creativity and innovation.

Complex issues know no hierarchy. The people in your organisation who may have the greatest insight and wisdom may be the people who are the lowest paid and the least listened to. This means that the way we exercise leadership is less about appearing to be in control and telling people what to do and instead helping your people take the time to deeply explore all of the nuances of complex problems. This starts with suspending our expertise and becoming a beginner once more.

Mindset Shift #3 – Abandon firefighting as a leadership strategy

Many of the leaders I work with are experts in firefighting. When genuinely needed, this can be an invaluable skill that can save whole organisations from the brink of collapse. But let’s be clear, being responsive to changing dynamics is not the same as firefighting.

Firefighting is an adrenaline-intense activity and the immediacy of outcomes can be highly seductive. Some leaders become so addicted to firefighting that long after the fire has been put out they continue to operate that way: looking for fires, and at worst even creating fires, so that they can once again save the day.

The problem with this is two-fold. Firstly, it’s exhausting for the people these firefighters lead. The second reason relates more to how we manage complexity. A solution that’s designed to achieve short-term success often has unintended consequences in the longer term and it rarely takes us towards our strategic goals. Complex problems often require innovative solutions that have very little to do with the ‘presenting problem’. If we are to solve intractable business problems then our focus must also shift to longer-term systemic issues, not just putting out the fire in front of us.

If we begin to make these shifts in our mindset, we’re more likely to spot not just the challenges, but also the opportunities that increasing complexity provides.

By Jacqueline Conway…

Jacqueline Conway works with CEOs and executive teams as they lead in the face of uncertainty and complexity. She works in the related areas of Strategic Foresight, Adaptive Leadership and Systemic Change. Based in Edinburgh, she works globally with organisations facing disruption in the new world of work.

About Jacqueline Conway