Leading in complexity

By Martin Vogel

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I’m not a great one for introducing theoretical models in my work with clients, however much my practice may be informed by theory. One that I frequently reference, though, is the leader’s framework for decision making devised by David Snowden and Mary Boone. This is the clearest and most usable articulation I know of what it means to lead in complex situations.

Snowden and Boone argue that leaders often come unstuck because they misconstrue the nature of the scenario they are dealing with. Typically, often without realising it, they are informed by an ideology of management that likens organisations to machines. So they fall in with expectations that most problems can be subject to linear solutions of command and control. Unfortunately, they are likely to be putting unreasonable pressure on themselves and, ultimately, setting themselves up for failure.

As Snowden and Boone put it:

“All too often, managers rely on common leadership approaches that work well in one set of circumstances but fall short in others. Why do these approaches fail even when logic indicates they should prevail? The answer lies in a fundamental assumption of organizational theory and practice: that a certain level of predictability and order exists in the world. This assumption, grounded in the Newtonian science that underlies scientific management, encourages simplifications that are useful in ordered circumstances. Circumstances change, however, and as they become more complex, the simplifications can fail. Good leadership is not a one-size-fits-all proposition.”

Snowden and Boone discern four typical contexts for leadership: the simple; the complicated; the complex; and the chaotic. Each of these has its own distinct domain of knowing. In order to understand what their leadership challenge is, leaders first need to be able to recognise what kind of leadership context they face.

The simple context is barely a leadership challenge at all. This is where the relationship between cause and effect is clear and the right answer to a problem can be readily grasped by everyone. It is the domain of known knowns. It requires people simply to categorise the problem before them and the path ahead from there will be clear.

In the complicated context, there is also a clear relationship between cause and effect but it’s not readily apparent to everybody. The right answer can be discerned only with the help of experts. This is the domain of known unknowns. It calls for action to be informed by analytic insight. This is the context that informs much management thinking but it’s not necessarily the context in which that thinking is being applied.

That would be the complex context in which the right path can’t easily be defined as there are so many variables influencing the relationship between cause and effect. This is the domain of unknown unknowns which calls for an emergent and experimental orientation to leadership. More on this below.

The chaotic context is characterised by disorder where there is such turbulence that relationships between cause and effect are impossible to discern. This is the domain of unknowables. Snowden and Boone cite the events of September 11 2001 as falling into this category. Another example would be the financial crash of 2008. The imperative in these situations is to establish any point of control from which to build out stability.

When I share this thinking with clients, it immediately resonates with them. People are mostly working in complex scenarios these days. When they see Snowden and Boone’s framework, clients recognise the complex in their situation but also realise that they’ve been colluding in thinking that the situation can be addressed with strategies informed by the complicated. The idea that organisational problems are susceptible to rational and orderly management is seductive. But, as Snowden and Boone point out, ”The world is often irrational and unpredictable.”

I suspect the world was never as orderly and controllable as traditional management theory would have it. The analogy that likens an organisation to a machine that follows predictable patterns discounts too much about the sheer messiness of human relations. For every management action, there is always a subversive counter-reaction somewhere in the system. And every plan has unintended consequences which aren’t anticipated in advance.

It’s not hard to find examples of the difficulties that arise when we bring the thinking of the complicated context to the realm of the complex. Look at the European Union, unable to agree ways out of its perfect storm of intractable problems around the Euro, the Schengen area and the challenges brought by migration – and now the threat of exit of one its biggest members. Look at the NHS, which responds to crises by imposing onerous compliance codes and performance targets on doctors and nurses when it faces systemic challenges associated with rationing resources in the face of ever-increasing medical demands. Look at the BBC, where Dame Janet Smith’s report into sexual abuse was unable to pinpoint responsibility for the corporation’s failure to control the likes of Jimmy Savile but found that BBC employees still feared reporting abuse because of the management culture that prevails.

Snowden and Boone have an evocative way of comparing the complicated to the complex:

“It’s like the difference between, say, a Ferrari and the Brazilian rainforest. Ferraris are complicated machines, but an expert mechanic can take one apart and reassemble it without changing a thing. The car is static, and the whole is the sum of its parts. The rainforest, on the other hand, is in constant flux – a species becomes extinct, weather patterns change, an agricultural project reroutes a water source – and the whole is far more than the sum of its parts. This is the realm of “unknown unknowns,” and it is the domain to which much of contemporary business has shifted.”

The big challenge for leaders today is to free themselves from the auto-pilot of traditional command-and-control management, informed by metaphors of the organisation as machine. To thrive in complex contexts, leaders need to recognise that the right solution can’t be discerned in advance. This therefore calls for a willingness to facilitate experimentation, to accept the likelihood of failures and to learn quickly and adjust. According to Snowden and Boone:

“Leaders who try to impose order in a complex context will fail, but those who set the stage, step back a bit, allow patterns to emerge, and determine which ones are desirable will succeed.”

What they don’t discuss are the personal ramifications of all this. Leading in complexity demands equanimity of leaders. It calls for resilience, intuition, collaboration and reflection. It demands ease with sharing responsibility. It can be very exposing to adopt the styles appropriate for complexity when all around you are bringing the mindsets and reactions of the realm of the complicated. Working with a coach can help leaders navigate these challenges.

There’s a great premium put on leaders these days to know, to appear in control. The realm of complexity is all about not knowing. Instead of narcissistic, can-do action figures, we need leaders who can hold uncertainty and give people space to think and let distributed leadership flourish. It’s a culture of business that’s struggling to be born.

Image courtesy Nick Page.