Can you identify the drivers of complexity in your organization? Are you able to diagnose the level of uncertainty in your environment? Can you assess a given situation’s complexity and use a framework for choosing an appropriate course of action?
The ever-increasing complexity facing organizations demands that leaders improve performance outcomes for their organizations. This is especially true for those working in unforgiving social, political and regulatory environments, which are rich with complexity and where the scale of consequences can be catastrophic. In addition, cognitive biases interfere with accurate perception of a circumstance and prevent the person from attending to additional incoming data. Further, it is very hard for the person whose perceptions and judgements are compromised to see it until long after the fact.
Leading through complexity requires leaders to possess impeccable awareness of their behavior and of how others interpret it. As leaders, we need to create actions that allow our people to quickly diagnose their level of complexity and respond accordingly. The following six principles are emerging as priorities for leading in a complex world.
Mindset for Complexity
Leadership mindset is critical for organizations dealing with complexity. This mindset embraces the discovery of new phenomena for which there is not an immediate diagnosis or solution. Instead there is inquiry, observation, and openness to discovery. This includes a willingness not to rush to reach a conclusion, which often frustrates others who have only a classic management mindset.
The mindset in many organizations is to avoid complexity by insisting on adopting a known solution, even when the solution does not apply. The rush to impose a solution reduces the tension of the unknown, but does not serve the organizations best interests. That is, the choice of a quick solution rather than understanding the drivers of complexity is a temporary “feel good” solution since it reduces the personal tension of “not knowing”. Reducing tension costs the organization the opportunity to see the drivers of complexity which is found in the tensions and has the critical information for breakthroughs in innovation and reduction of risks.
Leaders guide organizations and teams in development of new capabilities for embracing and learning from complexity. These new capabilities begin with identifying the drivers of complexity, rather than immediately assuming a known solution. Much of what happens in business does not actually fit inside “order and knowing”. Instead, it occurs in the realms of uncertainty and the un-ordered, which requires leaders who are willing to embrace the existence of complexity. If a business person assumes order, they will be surprised by the fact that “things that never happened before happen all the time”, a concept discussed by Karl Weick concerning High Reliability Organizing, or HRO.
Probing for Weak Signals
Leaders diagnose the level of complexity and uncertainty which their organization is facing. There are response patterns which can be observed, provide valuable insights, and ultimately diagnosed. The diagnosing involves probing for weak signals which require leadership experiments to quickly amplify and exploit these signals. A probe provides valuable data and patterns on what is being learned. The disagreement among those investigating the patterns is important. The leader and team collaborate in keeping an open mind and not falling into the temptation to prematurely rush to an inaccurate conclusion. The patterns serve as evidence necessary to diagnosing the uncertainty and effectively see opportunities in the complexity. Dave Snowden (from which much of this thinking is derived) aptly describes the response pattern as probe the environment, sense what works and doesn’t, and respond intelligently. This process of conducting probes gives an intentional look at the signals which led to success. These probes also allow for dampening the signals which are not working.
Capability for Creating Emergent Practices
Emergent practices enable leaders in an organization to observe the drivers of complexity, to conduct probes and projects to better understand the realms of complexity, and then to invent a course of action. Emergent Practice allows for experimentation and organizational learning. It is also an excellent place for Breakthrough Projects. With an Emergent Practice, solution emerges that could not be fully known in advance.
Leading Through Cognitive Bias
Facility in equipping others in the organization to spot cognitive bias is an essential skill of leadership. Cognitive biases are the consequences of mental shortcuts which every person uses routinely throughout the day. These cognitive shortcuts allow us all to function and are helpful in dealing with mundane routines. Occasionally these mental and behavioral shortcuts misread the situation and begin a course of action based on the faulty perception. The clear majority of these misreads are harmless and can even be humorous. However, on occasion these misreads can be very serious for managers assessing strategic options and anyone operating in some potentially complex situations.
KingChapman equips leaders to guide their organizations in identifying the drivers of complexity. In dealing with complexity, leaders begin with probing to observe the response patterns. Data discovered from these probes is the first step in agile learning and developing an intelligent response. The agile learning is required to avoid slipping into preexisting explanations which do not apply. Then information and learning can emerge.
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