Leadership in Distress: Navigating Complexity

The GrowthPlay leadership team examined the sign of the times, and asked, what is it that we want to offer our community to elevate hope? That will create clarity and will drive some measure of control and confidence so that people can act courageously in this distress and post stress?  With our Leadership in Distress Series we hope we can draw wisdom and best practices from those who really make a living navigating and helping leaders flourish in all times of prosperity and in spaces of crisis and distress.


Navigating Complexity

Deb Knupp: Terrific. Well, you know, in my experience, and particularly when you look at people who have positional leadership authority, they’ve got either leaders somewhere and their job title, or they are operating in their organizations where they have direct reports, or they’re running full enterprises as the executive leader, if you will. In my experience, sometimes in the space of crisis, the default strategy is very much to go into kind of command and control.

You know, we think about the lifeboat analogy that when you know if everybody’s jumping in a lifeboat leaders are not often asking what role would you like to play in the boat. Would you like to bail, water, or row. The choice is yours.

But to your point earlier around the blizzard. There is the crisis, if you will. And then, there’s the long term. And so the command and control.

Immediacy that sometimes is called upon, and I think often if that becomes sort of the ongoing behavior, but during a crisis and post crisis, leaders will miss all the benefits they could receive and how they could be enriched by innovation that comes through teams and other people. And so I’d love to get your perspective on this is how do I take the full responsibility and to, you know, stem the bleeding, if you will, and make some of those hard calls but not let that become the default system where I miss out on teams and innovation. What do you think about this construct and what is your perspective on what we can do.

Lisa Slayton: The default is to go to high command it comes out of the fear and anxiety to give the leader him or herself. Right. And it’s necessary. We have to react and respond in the moment and there’s a place for that. The framework I want to introduce to your audience comes from a Welsh researcher and social scientist named David Snowden and it’s called the Cynefin framework. It’s a Welsh word. I won’t go into all the details of it and I’m happy to provide you with a link and a resource to get your audience oriented to this, but he talks about four areas of organizational life that we have to pay attention to. Our systems life, the clear, or the obvious, the complicated, the chaotic, and then the complex.

And, as I’ve worked with this framework, over the years, what I have seen is that most leaders default to the clear and obvious or the complicated. Those are the problem solving side of things, right. The clear and obvious is that we sense quickly what’s going on. We put it in a familiar category. And then we respond. And this is the place where you, where people can leverage best practices. What we know in the past, how would that apply here.

And it’s very rigid, it’s like, here are the five things we’re going to do and here’s how we’re going to do it. That’s the command control environment. When you get into more complicated situation, it’s still problem solving, you know, think of it as moving from addition and subtraction to algebra and calculus. And a there’s a sense. And then you do a little bit of analysis, you know, quickly categorize you do a little bit of analysis and then you respond and you still reference historical practices, but you have a little more fluidity around them. You can crystal create space. This is where I see most leaders responding right in this clear space and because they want to reference what they already know yeah and that’s helpful.

Then, but not complete the chaotic realm, which is what a lot of us experience have experienced recently and are still experiencing in many ways, requires immediate action, you know, there’s a lot of critique right now about how this has played out and the timing of it did we act fast enough, did our national leaders act fast enough to put certain things in place, and we can debate the merits of that argument, but in chaos, you’ve got to act quickly to put things in place that create some sense of order in a place of complete disorder and you can’t always rely on what you knew in the past. You’re inventing it as you go, and I think we’ve seen some of that and it’s it continues to emerge and develop, and all of those have a place in organizational life.

But when you step into the place of complexity, which is where I want to take us in for the rest of our discussion, it means that you have to be able to create the space to step back and discover new patterns that are emerging. David Snowden was quoted in an article in Forbes Magazine a couple of weeks ago and he said it this way. He said, “The leaders who try and impose order in a complex context will fail, but those who set the stage, step back a bit and allow patterns to emerge and then determine which ones are desirable will succeed. They will discern many opportunities for innovation, creativity, and new business models.”

The leaders who cannot make the shifts from clear too complicated to take too chaotic and then complexity and back again who can’t move in these environments fluidly, who have not developed the skills to pause and reflect and there’s the key thing however briefly in this moment will be the ones whose organizations will struggle to be common. He uses the word executive. Executive is a word for how organizations evolve to their environment and it actually comes out of evolutionary biology. You know we have executive development over time as we adapt to our environment. So it’s iterative and it’s not that these big leaps. It’s little steps. And when we talked earlier when we began around this idea of, oh, this is the opportunity to innovate, people believe that means you have to jump into something entirely new. And that’s not actually how innovation occurs.

So I think the leaders that have the ability to pause and reflect and I want to, I cannot stress how important that is. And that’s the danger by the way back to back. Zoom calls all day long, is there’s no pause and reflect, they have no ability if they can’t do it. They have no ability to shift to navigate and complexity and complexity doesn’t start with sensing. It starts with probing. It starts with looking around and seeing what’s going on and paying attention and you can put some structure around this and we can talk about what that looks like. Where you begin to listen and pay attention to see what new things are emerging. One of the phrases David Snowden uses that I love is if we’re doing this thing and it’s not going to get us where we want to go. He says, “What is the adjacent possible”.  Not the thing you’re doing now. But what’s a thing that’s similar that could be our small adjustment that begins to allow us to move in the direction that we want to go. And I think that’s where real innovation happens is, what’s the adjacent possible to what we’re doing now.

Lisa Slayton is the Founding Partner and CEO of Tamin Partners LLC.

Link to full video