Complexity is uncertainty. Not because you (subjectively) don’t know the answer but because the answer (objectively) hasn’t emerged yet.
When faced by complexity should we stop trying and wait for whatever happens to surprise us? I’d argue no, because we can work with the inherent potential of uncertainty to discover options for re-invention and innovation. Genuine progress comes from embracing complexity.
Cynefin is a sense-making framework guiding leadership decision-making in conditions of uncertainty. It helps define the type of situations leaders face and directs the most contextually-relevant approaches to addressing them. One of the key decisions is whether the answer to your problem is unknown because you haven’t found the right expert, or whether there is no answer because it hasn’t been discovered, yet. The later represents a huge opportunity.
Faced by the unknown - what next with the economy, how to improve our working culture, what will customers want next - leaders can be tempted to see the challenges as knowable; assuming someone can deal with them. Unsurprisingly an expert can usually be found (at great cost), but at best they’ll be a waste of money; at worst they’ll exacerbate the situation by trying to impose an inauthentic certainty and wasting the opportunity for fresh discovery.
The trick for leaders is knowing whether you’re merely facing a ’known unknown’ (something you know you don’t know, but know someone who does) or an ‘unknown unknown’, which require unconventional approaches. A simple rule of thumb to distinguish between the two is whether competing hypotheses exist about what is going on here and what’s causing it - rather than just how best to solve it. If it’s the former then it’s complex and no guru will solve it.
Unfortunately, deeply tangled situations are exactly the ones leaders seek to avoid at all costs. Many prefer to be decisive and wrong (this is the expert, he’ll solve it!) rather than indecisive and right (the answer is unknown, we need to experiment and see what we can learn).
However, leaders can choose to pro-actively embrace complexity supported by a sound scientific basis - using nature’s very own system of evolution that seeks variation and evidence-base selection (the alternative is creationism!). The second very short video on this page is the best introduction out there to the different approaches leaders can adopt and is well worth two and a half minutes of your life.
Tomorrow’s blog will provide examples of how embracing complexity in this way has been put into practice with exceptional benefit.
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