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It’s a complex world for leaders

Neil Hughes Neil Hughes

In today’s world, change and disruption are constant and being able to navigate change is an indispensable leadership trait.

There is a fundamental difference between seeing the change challenge as one of navigating the complicated and seeing it as navigating the complex.

Complicated challenges may be demanding but with enough information we can leverage experience and expertise, we can observe patterns of cause and effect, apply rules and processes and then simplify and solve.  As one of my old bosses used to say, we often over complicate business problems and then have to simplify to solve.  Complexity, on the other hand, should be navigated differently because complex systems and environments are made up of a mosaic of diverse yet interdependent elements that interact in unexpected ways.  When we look at mechanics and engineering, we find highly complicated systems, like a jet engine.  When we look at nature, we can see highly complex systems, like a rain forest or coral reef.

Some of our work may be complicated, but we do that work in a complex environment.

Complex systems do not always follow patterns and so past behaviour of a complex system may not predict its future behaviour. In a complex system there is no centre or top from which to direct.  Empowered and self-directed teams ideally can resolve challenges in different parts of a complex system, almost akin to what the various university and pharma teams are doing around the world in the search for a vaccine for COVID-19. 

Complexity is not linear, and it is not predictable.  We cannot completely control it, but we can navigate and adapt to it.  Only then can we uncover the hidden opportunities.

When you look at the biggest change challenges you are facing, do they resemble the complicated or the complex?  Things like, more than the sum of its parts; cause and effect can’t be mapped, unpredictable – unintended consequences and requires exploration not best practice.  If your challenge meets some or all of these criteria, it’s likely to be complex rather than merely a complicated challenge.

We know that we cannot exercise complete control in a complex world, the complex environment is always changing, and we cannot lead people back to the way things were before.  We can manage our own response – we can develop our own thinking – we can learn. Under stress it can be tempting to fall back on our experience and expertise – to get consumed with the details and to narrow our focus.  Leading in a complex system requires us to take a wider view of our firms, our roles, our teams, our service lines and to see them as part of a much bigger system.  This then must have implications for the way we lead.