More than ever before, your business operates in an unpredictable global business landscape. Some companies falter whilst others thrive. Why is this – and more importantly, what can you do to make sure your organisation is one of the winners?

Among other things, thriving organisations fully embrace the complexity they face, learning to be responsive to the ways in which the dynamics unfold.

But it’s no easy feat. Today, the ability to lead in complexity is a crucial leadership skill, and those executives who are adaptive enough to shift their habitual ways of leading will increasingly find themselves in demand.

But how do you make this adaptive shift? It starts with mindset.

Here are three such shifts in mindset that today’s leaders need to make in order to tackle successfully the complexity we now all face.

Mindset Shift #1 – Shed mechanistic thinking

Everyone functions from an underlying assumption about how the world works. It informs everything you think and everything you do.

Most of us 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 much like machines. It’s from this basic assumption that we design organisations as if 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, on the basis of these assumptions, results from measures, procedures and controls.

But then we try to tackle complex issues by applying mechanistic approaches, and invariably end up wondering why these issues seem immune to change. That’s because working with complex problems requires us to see things not as if they were cogs in a machine-like wheel, but instead as an interconnected system that can adapt to all of the myriad actions of everyone within it.

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. The truly effective leaders focus on how things act and interact holistically, rather than breaking them down into constituent parts.

Mindset shift #2 – Give up the illusion of control 

Gaining and exercising control is, for many, an attractive part of being an executive. Indeed, most management and leadership approaches are usually created for the very purpose of control.

Because we are unable to control what we don’t understand, we are drawn naturally to simplification in order to move into action. Indeed, human minds are actually designed in favour of complexity reduction, to better achieve the evolutionary imperative of staying safe.

But for business leaders, this default to simplification will likely lead you to diagnose problems wrongly, create strategies that become obsolete, and implement plans that don’t solve the problems you thought you had.

And this is a key reason why we grab hold of the latest management fad that promises a panacea – very often costing time, money and effort that yields very little.

In many of the Executive Teams I work with, admitting that you don’t know the answer to something can feel like a risky move. But this is precisely why this second mindset shift is so important – because the very act of admitting you are starting from a place of ‘not knowing’ can open up creative exploration of the issue. By allowing yourself and your people the space to ‘not know’, you begin to enable genuine creativity and innovation.

Crucially, remember that complex issues know no hierarchy. The people in your organisation who may have the greatest insight may also be the people who are the lowest paid and often the least listened to. Tapping into this wisdom means exercising leadership that is less about appearing to be in control and telling people what to do, and more about 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 is an invaluable skill that can save whole organisations from collapse. But let’s be really clear: firefighting is really not the same as being responsive to changing dynamics.

Firefighting is an adrenaline-intense activity and the immediacy of outcomes can be highly seductive. So much so that some leaders become addicted to firefighting. In these instances, long after the crisis has been resolved, they look for fires – and even start fires – so that they can once again save the day. This behaviour is exhausting for the people these habitual firefighters lead, of course, but it creates a further risk that could have devastating consequences for an organisation’s future performance.

That further risk is this: a solution that’s designed to achieve short-term success often has unintended consequences in the longer term, and rarely will it take you towards your strategic goals. And that’s why managing complexity often requires innovative solutions that may seemingly have very little to do with the ‘presenting problem’.

To solve intractable business problems, your focus must shift to longer-term systemic issues, beyond putting out the fire in front of you.

The really great news here is that a shift in your leadership mindset doesn’t just equip you to deliver far better leadership through complex problems and challenges. Because this more strategic way of thinking puts you into the game of ‘long play’, you are also able to spot the opportunities that increasing complexity provides.

Leaders who can manage complexity are essential in this modern world. Leaders who have the foresight to see those future opportunities are the ones who will assure future growth for their organisations. But the leaders who can do both are the ones who will design and master the businesses of tomorrow.

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, Complex Change and Adaptive Leadership. Based in Edinburgh, she works globally with organisations facing disruption in the new world of work.

About Jacqueline Conway