When it comes to working in complex conditions, the old adage holds true: the only certainty is uncertainty.
As Jennifer Garvey Berger and Keith Johnston put in in Simple Habits for Complex Times: Powerful Practices for Leaders:
“It is an oddity of leadership that we often equate being a leader with having to predict, plan, and take control. This expectation is reinforced by the need to report that things are under control to the shareholders or the government or the board of a community group.”
But when you’re operating in a VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous) business environment, prediction and planning can’t operate as usual. So effective leaders do something radical – acknowledge their uncertainty. How you communicate that plays a big part in whether people get on board with your new, VUCA-ready approach.
Finding a new rhythm
For leaders trying to chart a path in complex times, Berger and Johnston suggest a new order of operations:Set the conditions for the initial direction and the boundaries.
Hone and shape the language about those boundaries, communicating mindset and message.
Communicate by engaging both emotions and logic.
Look at previous experiments you’ve tried, so your increased focus on experimenting doesn’t seem like a sudden change of direction.
Ensure your new message is conveyed as an adaptation to a changing world and the need to learn, not as a failure of the previous message.
Listen well, in order to enable feedback from safe-to-fail experiments.
So how do you follow this new rhythm without causing confusion and a lack of confidence? Even if you as a leader are convinced that it’s the right path, simply saying that won’t be enough.
Explaining the logic behind the change in message is important. But you’ll also need to engage people’s emotions. According to Berger and Johnston, there are two parts to this: firstly, make complexity bearable; secondly, make your direction “crisp and emotionally resonant”.
Making complexity bearable
Essentially, the whole of Simple Habits for Complex Times is about helping people learn to thrive in complex times. So it’s fair to say it’s a big task! But alongside the broader change of approach and culture, there’s something quicker you can do to make complexity less scary: point out that people already engage with it every day.
We all understand that life (beyond work) is unpredictable. So what we do is focus on “small markers along the journey that make the trip more fun”, not the end point over which we have no control. Use metaphors and imagery in your communications which draw on the familiar complexities of life outside of work, and you’ll make it more understandable to your people.
Direction and emotional resonance
As soon as you start communicating your strategy, be clear about direction and boundaries. Though these may shift over time, they’ll define which experiments count as safe-to-fail, and which are too risky.
There’s an important distinction here. You’re being clear about direction, not destination. Not only is it unwise to pick an endpoint in a complex situation (because you can’t predict what’ll happen next), it also makes people less likely to be agile and experimental. They’ll be looking for evidence of what they believe will get them there (remember, we search for what we want), and might miss threats and opportunities while focusing on that.
At the same time, you as a leader need to be honest about the emotional aspects of a change in approach. Are you excited about it? Nervous? Frustrated about the problems which prompted it? Then say so! And do it directly – not in business speak.
Looking back at past experiments
Some people will be put off even by the idea of experimenting, thinking that they don’t know how to approach things that way. But most of us have actually implemented small-scale experiments at work – something where the stakes are low, the changes small. Gathering information about these past experiments is a great way to show people that they actually do know how to do it.
You might come up against one more barrier though: the “that sort of thing won’t work because we’ve tried it before” response. That way of thinking might be useful in a simple or complicated situation, but not the less-predictable complex one. As Berger and Johnston put it:
“The questions that guide our thinking about innovation boundaries need to be different. Not, “Did this work before?” Not even, “What are the odds this will work this time?” These are excellent questions, and we can and should learn from them, but they’re not helpful in creating a boundary about what we should try next. Innovation requires edgy thinking, failure, missteps, and learning.”
Focusing on learning
Everything comes back to learning. Are there experiments you tried before which were successful? Great, implement those changes. Ones which were unsuccessful? Also great, that gives you more data to learn from.
This can be tough in practice. When things feel unpredictable and we want to cling to clear goals, to remove the unpredictability and ‘fix’ things – which won’t work. As Berger and Johnston make clear, the changes you’re making “need to be a sign that the organization or team is thriving and growing—not that the leader has made a mistake and needs to try again to get it right. There is no getting it right. There are no maps here, no GPS. There are only new landscapes, new information, new opportunities and challenges, and the best leaders are those who are willing to listen well and make subtle changes to collectively recalculate the route again and again.”