Embracing complexity

perspectives Aug 13, 2021

Global financial crises, pandemics, global warming, royal commissions into finance and aged care.  The lesson we are constantly being taught is that our world has become complex much faster than society’s capacity to deal with it. In the context of our organisations and institutions, when the rate of change of the external world exceeds the rate of change inside organisations, the end is near.

Consider for a moment how many people in your organisation are struggling to deal with the pace of change around them. Well-intended, highly competent and successful people who have been able to lead and thrive successfully in more stable conditions are finding that they are in over their heads when faced with a new level of disruption and complexity. You might like to reflect on how this applies to you personally.

Many leaders are able to perceive the need to lean into complexity. However, in our work with leaders, we often hear their desire for simplicity, clear timelines and objectives even in the face of ambiguity and uncertainty.  Some leaders also see their role to shelter people from ambiguity, rather than embrace and face into it.

It seems that while the cognitive acceptance of the need to lead and work differently has grown significantly in the last few years, people still crave certainty and stability.  As a result, we may still end up treating complex adaptive challenges with overly simple and technical solutions.

There are many clues when an organisation is not facing into the complexity it needs to. Some of our observations are:

  • A conga line of experts or consultants arrive with a prescribed solution to the latest crisis, and yet the challenges remain
  • Reversion to the tried and tested, resulting in a failure to learn and mistakes often repeated
  • An overworked and overstressed workforce
  • Leaders feeling in over their heads and unable to cope with the need for both action and reflection
  • Ignoring the complexity and ambiguity and focusing only on what can be immediately controlled or actioned

One of the key roles of change leaders and culture practitioners in a complex, ambiguous world, is to help their organisations to gain an awareness of the need to face into complexity, the consequences of not doing so, and to support people with methodologies to build capabilities to respond differently.

If you are in this position, consider the following approaches:

Build systemic insight

  • Start small and build from there. Rather than create a full program of work, start with small, safe-fail tests. As patterns emerge, expand the commitment further in the organisation
  • Pay attention to disturbances in the system and help bring them to the attention of people across the organisation
  • Pay attention to disturbances outside the organisational system that have potential consequences for the organisation

Build collective insight

  • Increase awareness of the consequences of complexity one conversation at a time. Listening to and understanding other people’s perspectives, intentions and challenges earns you the right to share your perspective and ask questions to help people deepen their understanding
  • Embed shared learning forums as ways of allowing group wisdom to deepen the awareness and ability to respond effectively for all members
  • Find others in the organisation who understand complexity and build a group of people who “get it”. Build the capability of this group to work across the organisation to help build awareness of and commitment to the need to learn and adapt. Consider including voices from outside of the organisation

Build self-insight

  • Reframe language from the language of success and failure to everything as an opportunity to learn
  • Encourage methods and activities that help people take deeper and broader perspectives. This may include identifying personal filters and assumptions about life, and learning to observe them and how they shape your perceptions and actions
  • Invite people to pay attention to their own responses to complexity, including when they are personally reverting to default behaviours and methods as a way of coping versus facing into new learning

Each time an organisation turns its back on a complex problem, the problem only gets larger. If this cycle continues unabated, ultimately the organisation descends into chaos. Embracing ambiguity and complexity is not just for the brave disruptors, it is for any organisation or individual facing into significant change.

Adaptive Cultures and our practitioners have been enabling organisations to face into complexity over the last two decades. If you would like to learn more about how we can help and support you, please contact us for a chat.

You might be interested in our upcoming Practitioner Development Program. This is a 12-month Program for leaders, facilitators, business transformation and culture practitioners who would like to become more adaptive and courageous in guiding cultural evolution. The Program supports participants with the knowledge, skills, frameworks and personal development required to become world-class culture and change practitioners and focuses on immediate application and impact through organisational case studies. Practitioners find they develop greater confidence, courage and compassion in navigating the significant challenges of transforming systems.


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