How do you create a clear vision for your business when you’re operating in times of complexity? This is one of the key issues leaders face today – how to have direction, while recognising that the future is uncertain.
To explore this question, I’m going to continue using the framework set out by Jennifer Garvey Berger and Keith Johnston in Simple Habits for Complex Times: Powerful Practices for Leaders. I’ve already outlined their approach to leading the possible, keeping it simple while engaging with complexity, and balancing listening with saying what you mean.
So let’s build on that by asking: how do you create a clear vision for an uncertain future? What are some of the key challenges, and what tools can you use to overcome them?
Look from all angles
To create a vision for the future, first you need to honestly assess the present. And to do this, you need to view your situation from as many angles as possible. I’ve written before about the power of difference, and this is another case where diversity is vital. As Berger and Johnston put it, “gathering multiple perspectives is critical because the perspective of any one person or team is just too limited.”
But overlaying multiple perspectives can be challenging, even messy. Rather than a clear photograph, you might end up with a Cubist painting – a complex image which you as a leader will need to make meaning from. It’s bound to contain things which seem contradictory of confusing, and that’s where you can start identifying the issues which could shape your organisation’s future.
Make polarity maps
Some of the tensions which emerge will be polarities. That is to say, “issues that are never solvable in any way that could last”, with two interdependent poles.
For example, centralised leadership versus local autonomy; or short-term goals versus long-term strategy. Each side of the polarity will have its pro and its cons, and by leaning too far into the positives of one side you risk also bringing up its negatives.
Berger and Johnston suggest following Barry Johnson’s approach when you spot polarities which will affect how you do things in future: make a polarity map. These are simple two-by-two grids, with the left-hand boxes referring to one end of the polarity, the right-hand ones to the other. In the top boxes you write the positives associated with each end of the polarity, and in the bottom boxes you list potential negatives.
As is so often the case, focusing on a specific issue, organising your thoughts on it and clearly visualising it can be “unexpectedly transformational”, and it’s a great tool to use in teams.
Consider boundaries and attractors
When trying to creatively problem solve, many of us are instinctively aware of boundaries. Time and money are obvious ones – few of us have the luxury of throwing unlimited resources on an issue!
But do you also consider attractors? So not a line we can’t or won’t cross, but something which pulls us towards itelf. It could be anything from an idea to a product and, as Berger and Johnston explain:
“Attractors, like boundaries, aren’t inherently good or bad. A shared break room can attract creative collaboration or nasty gossip (or both). A powerful vision can attract excitement or dread (or both). In a complex system, leaders need to pay attention to both positive and negative attractors, and then encourage experiments.”
Run safe-to-fail experiments
So, you’ve mapped out where you are currently, considered polarities and attractors, outlined boundaries. The final step in creating a clear but adaptable vision – rather than empty targets or unrealistic goals – is experimenting to learn more about the system and how it can change. But these must be safe-to-fail experiments.
Helpfully, Berger and Johnston outline the principles of building effective safe-to-fail experiments:Run several simultaneously, so you can gather more information about how systems respond.
Run contradictory experiments – “if one succeeds, another should fail.”
Make the experiments “finely grained, pragmatic, short term, and cheap in the experimental phase [as well as] crisp and clear so that everyone knows exactly what new thing they’re trying.”
Explore different neighbourhoods, ie try some experiments which don’t seem to aim at the central problem, but rather one which is tangential.
Leverage the power of diversity. “Snowden suggests that some experiments should use what he calls “naive capability.” He means those people with deep expertise in a totally different field that might give new insight (like bringing in a scriptwriter to help solve a community engagement issue).”
And finally, “don’t be afraid to experiment on multiple problems with a cluster of experiments, and don’t be afraid to take on a big issue with a small experiment. In a system, these problems are likely to clump together, so a single experiment might solve multiple related issues.”