Leading in complex environments

What’s the problem?

As we all know – and feel on a daily basis – the working world has never been more complex. The 21st century context calls for leaders who truly understand how to work with complex problems
and how to lead others through them.

Instead, we are struggling to keep pace. Rather than thriving in this environment, we find that many leaders find it difficult to cope with continuous complexity and frequently burnout. Why is this?

It’s not just about workload. The answers relate to deeper issues about how we best engage with complexity.

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Current approaches fall short

Our brains generally don’t enjoy complexity.
They like to conserve energy wherever possible, and can do this by forming ordered thinking habits and finding patterns, even where there are none. As such, we tend to wrongly diagnose complex problems as complicated. Complicated problems, though still challenging, allow for sequential and patterned thinking, a tool not readily applicable for complex problems. To understand the difference between complicated and complex problems, it can often be helpful to think of the difference between a computer and the brain.

A computer is complicated. While consisting of many moving fragments, a computer is the summation of its parts, all of which can be understood and described. If you employed a top-down plan of change in a complicated environment, you would be able to see cause-and-effect, and predict logical outcomes.

The brain is complex. As a growing system, it is adaptable and dynamic, and its subcomponents can not be understood by breaking them down. If we were to treat the brain as complicated instead
of complex we would fail to manage its diversity, interdependence, and multiplicity of connections. A top-down implementation would fail in this environment, and cause-and-effect would be impossible to ascertain.

Despite this, we often try to make these implementations fit, by imposing on to these problems our own logical lens. Complex problems need complex solutions; they need leaders who
can help others adapt to complexity.

Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face.
-Mike Tyson

Further, we need leaders that can use this uncertainty to think and be creative, and be innovative with change. We need to move past wanting to control or minimise complexity, to wanting to leverage it.

Complex situations don’t disappear once solutions are put in place. Instead, they move and adapt, hence controlling complexity, or hoping to ‘deal’ with complexity, will not succeed. We need alter how we approach complexity, and place emphasis lesson top-down strategies and more on building complexity leadership capability.

Our approach

At Bendelta, we’ve been working with leading organisations to build the capabilities of complexity leaders, and have developed an approach that truly addresses this need.

  1. Understand the differences between complicated and complex systems. Only once we understand the true nature of complex problems can we begin to work with them, and not be ruled by them. Bendelta employs simple evidence-based tools that allow our clients to map their organisational concerns as complex, complicated, simple, or chaotic, and can then set upon creating an adaptive process.
  2. Think in terms of an adaptive process, rather than a plan. A plan can be thought of as the “who, what, when, why, and how much”. It is generally well-thought out, concrete, and the method through which we address complicated problems.
    In contrast, a process is the way in which tasks are carried out. If a process is designed to be adaptive and responsive to the system, then we approach complex problems from an adaptive lens, and are open to changes in our thinking.
  3. Invest in collaboration. Leveraging team diversity is essential. In order to adapt with
    a complex system, we need individuals that can approach systems and tasks differently. We need diverse thinkers who can challenge the norm to find new perspectives. Bendelta encourages organisations to:
    Get different thinkers together, and pose them challenging problems, with no identified solution.
    Lead a community of thinking that lives outside of the expected.
    Think ahead towards how these challenges may adapt and change in the future.
  4. Create a culture of reflection. In times of high stress, organisations and systems can seem to oscillate between stability and instability. In this environment, leaders and their employees can cease to thrive, and fall back to a survival mode. Leaders that model and encourage group reflection in and after moments of high stress achieve better learnings from their team, and allow for better recovery.
  5. Encourage continuous development. Cultivating self-awareness, resilience and mental toughness can assist in building complexity leadership capability. Leaders who are aware of their strengths and limitations can better lead others with proactive vulnerability and authenticity.
  6. Try things that shouldn’t work. Complex systems are a great space to generate new ideas and try out experiments. Research across neuroscience, cognitive psychology, and social psychology consistently demonstrates the positive contribution of complexity. Adding a dash of mess into a problem can be a stepping point for creativity, innovation, and proactive change. Leaders play a key role in normalising this experience.
  7. Grow comfortable with the uncomfortable. A key role of a leader in a complex system is to embrace uncertainty, rather than being overwhelmed by it. This requires a mindset shift from understanding complexity as a detractor of success, to a contributor. Leaders need to grow into being excited by the opportunities and creativity complex problems can promote, and then share this with others. Our research has found that effective leaders in complex systems better limit the anxiety associated with problems that may not have foreseeable answers. Moreover, they are also better at sharing the skill with others. Complexity leaders can proactively use their influence to help their team “lean into” complex problems.

This is all achievable. Organisations don’t get to this level through big leaps; they get there through tiny tweaks. It takes small steps to develop leaders who thrive in a complex system, and these actions can all be learned.

Benefits to adopting this approach

By addressing complex problems this way, we help leaders move past simply coping with complexity, to leveraging it. This enables leaders to be more productive and reach better outcomes for their organisation and their people. We do not attempt to force a solution onto an environment. Instead, we collaborate with our clients to build a complexity process that is adaptive to their context. Our approach to leading complexity allows for the development of capability in staff.

Evidence of success

Bendelta has been working with organisations which have to engage with profound complexity on a daily basis. By implementing the methods described above and building critical skills, we’ve seen leaders embrace the uncertainty and use complexity as a mechanism for creativity. This has led to more innovative solutions to complex problems and more effective organisations overall.

If you’d like to understand more about these case studies and how your organisation can better lead in complexity, we’d be happy to share these success stories with you. Complexity may seem threatening but we’ve found that it can be as much an asset
as a challenge.


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