Throughout the book Simple Habits for Complex Times: Powerful Practices for Leaders, Jennifer Garvey Berger and Keith Johnston introduce several tools and frameworks which I find really helpful. I have a well-stocked toolkit I reach for at the right moments as a coach, and all of these have found a place there.
Here’s a quick overview of my favourites, plus links to blog posts with more detail and context for each.
Before approaching a set of problems, you need to know if you’re working in a “complicated” environment, or a “complex” one. A useful tool for assessing this is the Cynefin framework, which looks at the relationship between cause and effect. Can you narrow down what might happen next, defining what’s probable? Or can you only outline what’s possible?
If there’s a repeatable and predictable link, the situation is simple. If you can discern the likely link through research, it’s complicated. But if the link is unpredictable and doesn’t repeat, it’s complex.
When we’re operating under complex conditions, it can be hard to know when we should and shouldn’t trust our instincts. While I don’t think we should always ignore our brains and trust our guts, I do think we need to learn to be in touch with them.
As Berger and Johnston explain, “unless we can tune into some of the clues we can find that are signals from the background workings of our bodies”, we might just respond to them without really knowing why. Later we’ll probably rationalise the decision, rather than recognising we were letting some ancient instincts which had decided a bad outcome was probable run the show. Somatic coaching is a way to get in touch with how your body is responding in different situations, ultimately giving you more data.
Polarities are the sort of issues you just have to manage – there’s no lasting fix. Berger and Johnston use this simple image for identifying them: “Whenever you think about a pendulum swinging from one side and then overcorrecting to the other, you have a polarity.”
They suggest using Barry Johnson’s polarity mapping approach. You write out each end of the pendulum’s swing, then list the positive and negative features of each. Doing this helps you realise that you can’t have one without the other, and checks the impulse to swing wildly to side B when the negatives of side A are front of mind.
Boundaries and attractors
In complex times, you can’t map a clear route to a specified destination. You simply can’t predict things well enough for that. What you can do is look at what the current system is inclined to do, and how you could nudge that in a better direction.
As Berger and Johnston put it, “If a boundary is something that creates a limit (something we don’t want to cross), an attractor is something that pulls us toward itself.” You’ll need to see what attractors, positive or negative, are in place before removing or adding some. And of course, the same with boundaries.
Data, feeling and impact
When preparing for a negotiation or discussion, you first need to untangle your own thoughts about the matter. Berger and Johnston break this down into three simple areas: data, feeling and impact. Step back, look at the situation and ask yourself: what actually happened? How do I feel about it? What’s the impact on the workplace? And how do I know these things for sure?
Action Learning Groups (ALGs)
When facing a particularly knotty issue, it can really help to get a diverse group of people together for an Action Learning Group. This setup encourages people to ask genuinely curious questions, instead of rushing to present solutions. Not only can it help develop new approaches to the problem, but it often leaves the participants “somehow more agile, more sophisticated, and better at dealing with conflict and complexity.”
Check your biases
We might like to think we’re logical beings, but in reality, humans are irrational. This isn’t always a bad thing, but as leaders it’s important we don’t let our biases lead us. Berger and Johnston name five, which I think make a good list to reflect on before making a major decision:The ‘too busy to notice’ bias
The ‘we search for what we want to find’ bias
The ‘if it reminds me of me, it must be good’ bias
The ‘if I remember it, it must be important’ bias
The ‘someone must be at fault’ bias
Question ‘common sense’ approaches
Ultimately, the best resource you have for thriving in a complex world is your people. Focus on growing them, and you’ll be well placed to deal with unpredictable changes. But don’t rely on what sounds like ‘common sense’ when deciding your strategy. Thinking “we hire the smartest people”, or even “we treat people the same”, can actually lead you into making biased decisions which don’t bring in and develop the widest pool of talent.