We live in an increasingly complex world. And as business leaders, we need to know how best to operate under those conditions.
The last chapter in Jennifer Garvey Berger and Keith Johnston’s Simple Habits for Complex Times: Powerful Practices for Leaders focuses on this reality. If change is now the constant, how do we build structural support for what leadership theorist Ron Heifetz calls adaptive change? What exactly should we bear in mind as we move forward?
Determine what is and isn’t predictable
The fist skill you need to hone is figuring out what’s predictable, and what’s not. In complex conditions, you need to get a handle on the wide range of things which are possible, instead of searching for something probable.
A lot of this work is trying to unlearn things which are instinctive to us. We’re much more responsive to understandable threats (and opportunities), even if we logically know they’re not the greatest risks we face. As Berger and Johnston put it, “people are much more afraid in their guts of shark attacks (which kill between five and fifteen people a year worldwide) than about global warming (which could wipe out entire cities and create widespread flooding and famine).”
And this can’t just be something you as an individual do. Rather, you need to create systems and rituals which enable the organisation as a whole to ask different questions.
Create a feedback-rich organisation
Of course, there’s no point in asking questions if no one offers answers – or no one listens to answers when they’re given. So, you need to get as much high-quality feedback as possible, to help you build up an accurate picture of what’s happening now, and what possibilities are on the horizon.
Berger and Johnston mention something I think many leaders know, but don’t like to think about:
“The more power a leader has, the more people are inclined to insulate the leader from hearing things that might make her unhappy. This feels better in the short term (because we don’t hear things we don’t want to hear!) but is corrosive and dangerous in the long term.”
Pick a direction and build guardrails
I hear a lot from the organisations I work with about their quest for alignment. And that makes sense – you want everyone on the same page about your goals and values. But this can be “a swing to one side of a polarity (alignment versus diversification)”.
Rather than picking a specific route, choose a direction and explore many different paths. Put guardrails in place, and you won’t veer too far off course. This gives everyone some clarity about where it’s safe to experiment, and where it’s not.
A leader set on one path is in denial about being in a complex situation. But a leader who doesn’t clearly set guardrails “leaves a space for others to create their own boundaries with only the guidance of rumor, self-interest, and personal preference.”
Know the present before looking to the future
“We have wanted our leaders to be in the prediction business,” say Berger and Johnston, “looking at what was most probable and orienting themselves to take full advantage of their long view.”
But when you’re operating in VUCA conditions, you just can’t know what things will look like in a year – let alone a decade or more. Instead, you need to get very acquainted with what’s going on right now.
That doesn’t mean trying to control everything, micromanaging everyone and monitoring every email. Rather, it means really looking and listening. What feedback are you getting? What attractors can you spot? Are they helpful, or not?
Experiment and learn
Once you know where you are, your direction and your boundaries, it’s time to experiment. And you need to “encourage and insist on learning (rather than driving for immediate success).”
The aim here is to try out as many different things as possible, remembering that the solutions to specific problems are often ‘neighbourly’ rather than being in exactly the same area. Once again, Berger and Johnston offer a warning to leaders which I want to echo:
“The experiment-and-iterate approach to major organizational change requires that leaders release some of their sense of control. But since much of that control is illusory anyway, we think we could stand to give some of it up.”
Clear communication is vital in complex times. The conditions may be unpredictable, the future uncertain, but you as a leader can empower your people to see the exciting opportunities in that environment, not just the risks.
Much of this involves communicating direction, reiterating boundaries, giving and receiving feedback. Ultimately, this will help people to feel safe: not coddled or given a false sense of security in a clearly complex time; and not directionless and rudderless as the winds of change buffet the organisation.
Develop a growth mindset
One of your most important tasks as a leader in complex times is this: develop your growth mindset, and enable others to develop theirs. I won’t pretend this is easy, but it’s probably the single most powerful thing you can do.
I’ll leave the last word to Berger and Johnston:
“If you use these habits of mind, you’ll be in better shape to face what the world brings to you. We think, too, that if we use these habits of mind, we’ll be in better shape to bring our best selves to the world. To see one another with more compassion, to hold a bigger view of our place faced with seemingly intractable problems, to experiment and play our way to a better tomorrow, even—or especially—when we can’t predict what tomorrow will be like.”