Leaders have a unique challenge in the 21st century. The ecosystems (the countries, markets and industries) their organisations operate in are increasingly volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous. And missing critical signals amongst the increased noise risks exacerbating existing fault lines in their organisation. What should leaders do?
Subject matter experts solve complicated issues at functional levels. But complex questions (e.g. top line growth, corporate culture, change or risk management) cut across specialised silos. Complexity therefore is always escalated up; making managing complexity the key strategic challenge for executives in the 21st century.
Yet complexity remains widely misunderstood; described as something ‘very complicated’ or confused with chaos theory. Complexity science itself ascribes distinct characteristics (non-linearity, emergence, unpredictability) that render traditional 'solutions' (e.g. best practice, ideal leadership styles) entirely context dependent.
To face a complex issue means to deal with a ‘brownfield’ context - never a ‘greenfield’. Complexity is located in the system (e.g. the organisation, market, population) and always has a history, yet is constantly evolving. And as we engage with it, it changes - often in unpredictable ways. This is why answers in a complex system often appear only in hindsight - though this doesn't lead to foresight (e.g. it seems obvious now that sub-prime mortgages were a bad idea, but likewise, today's Quantitative Easing is variously described as the only thing saving the global economy or creating an even bigger future crash. Only time will tell).
In a complex world context is king.
Idealised futures are an illusion - as are strategies based on certainties designed to get you there. The collapse of Michael Porter’s Monitor Group in 2012 showed that while rigorous strategic analysis can help explain how excess profits were created in the past, it's a poor predictor of how to generate them in the future. Even the best formal strategising can trap leaders into believing the future will be an extension of the past. But if the future fails to conform to expectations we are left naked and fragile, exposed to the elements.
Like King Canut ordering back the tide, we discover powerful natural forces defy command and control.
Yet, the natural world itself - of which man is a part - has adapted wonderfully to exploit complexity. Evolution works through a process of increasing variation (of options), basing selection on what works now, and replication (or starvation) of options based on hard evidence of suitability. Can leaders learn something from nature about adopting a rigorous external focus, increasing awareness of options through rapid trial and error, and creating mechanisms to amplify or dampen options in order to thrive?
Effective horizon scanning uncovers emerging signals that signal where and what to act on before its too costly or too late. Technology is a great enabler in this, if one caveat is kept in mind: technology without human interpretation is meaningless. Google may find anything you ask, but can’t tell you what to ask for. Uncoupled from humans technology merely increases the noise surrounding the signals. Data is dumb - to become meaningful information human knowledge must be applied.
Humans should be at the front and back end of technologically-aided decision-making - defining the issues to explore and discovering its real meaning. Technology therefore must be designed to fit the human - the way we are now, rather than the way we'd like us to be. It must augment our natural sense-making abilities, which have supported human evolution through millennia (a best practice case?).
Critical knowledge flows through organisations in human networks. Navigating these flows effectively can reveal the origins and dynamics of change. And as humans share such knowledge naturally, extrinsic rewards aren’t required to tap this. Humans naturally create and share knowledge in the form of narratives - ‘micro-stories’ - that are both universal (every culture has them) and democratic (no barriers exist to sharing). These are the 'water cooler’ stories that spread insights and enable other people to make sense of the world around them so they can act better in it. Harnessing these narratives is critical to making sense of and navigating complexity.
Critical knowledge can be leveraged at little extra cost.
Leaders must create the conditions for contextually-appropriate knowledge to emerge. Managing for serendipity (‘pleasant surprises’) means seeking fresh insights, rapidly field-testing coherent ideas and replicating success. But as genuine breakthroughs don’t come from established thinking patterns. Leaders must learn how to break through the hard-wired autonomic brain we rely on - which seeks first-fit, rather than best-fit, solutions - and instead become receptive to novel ideas. Strategic leadership is less about engineering future visions than it is about increasing awareness of the critical factors in our ecosystem, 'identifying the biggest challenges in them and devising coherent approaches to overcoming them'. Real strategy is about seeking the truth of the current position.
Navigating and exploiting complexity means leaders must take multiple perspectives to discover genuine insights. Going beyond objective numbers to understand the why. Rapidly testing coherent ideas as ‘safe-to-fail’ experiments. and feeding success, whilst starving failure of resources. No-one can ‘cut through’ or ‘simplify’ complexity - nor should we want to. Complexity contains rich opportunities in a changing world. Leaders employing naturalistic approaches can exploit complexity profitably.
SenseMaker® - an innovative technology first deployed by the Singapore government to detect weak signal terrorist threats - taps into mass organisational knowledge flows and helps join up disparate information from silos to form actionable knowledge. It presents whole network perspectives leaders can rapidly see and understand, helping unlock the organisation’s present evolutionary potential.
For more information about how to make sense of, navigate and exploit complexity for organisational success contact firstname.lastname@example.org
Shape the Future
Don't just adapt to it