The 3 shifts in mindset necessary for working with complexity…

With leaders experiencing evermore turbulence in an increasingly unpredictable business landscape, the ability to make sense of and lead in complexity is now recognised as a crucial leadership skill.

Those leaders who have the flexibility to shift their habitual ways to become more adaptive will find themselves increasingly in demand. But as with all behavioural change, first comes a shift in mindset.

Here I outline 3 fundamental 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 lead organisations using objective measures, 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.

When we’re trying to tackle complex issues, applying a mechanistic approach usually leaves us wondering why they 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 as its own way of adapting to all of the myriad actions of everyone within it. Patterns order emerge through self-organisation in systems, such as when people ignore procedures that don’t work in favour of their own home-made solutions which are then taken up and accepted by everyone.

If we are to properly understand complexity we must begin by looking at things are wholes rather than parts and concentrate our attention at the organisational level and 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 an attractive part of being an executive for many. 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 panaceas.

In many of the Executive Teams that I work with, admitting that you don’t know the answer to something is career suicide. 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 who may have the greatest insight and wisdom about your organisational system may be the people who are lowest paid and the least listened to. This means that the way we exercise leadership is less about being 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 – 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 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 that they lead to be constantly called to battle in this way. 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 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 shift to longer-term systemic issues, not putting out the fire in front of us.

By Jacqueline Conway…

Jacqueline Conway is an organisation effectiveness consultant with two decade’s experience working with executives as they grapple with disruptive change and relentless complexity. She helps executive teams increases their adaptive capability as they align their culture to their purpose and as they solve intractable problems.

About Jacqueline Conway