Only variety overcomes complexity

There is a definitive difference between a complicated and complex issue. As leaders we must be able to quickly discern what we are facing in order to address it appropriately. There is real danger in mis-categorizing so it is necessary we have a process we can leverage in these situations. Having a sense making process is critical not only for ourselves but it is also something we must teach to others as we always want to ensure our teams are continually learning and growing. We don't often address it explicitly but the overriding objective for developing leaders is to teach them how to think. We too often focus on other more tangible skills but when we get to the core challenge of developing leaders it is helping them develop their intellectual and emotional capacities. In order to do this, we must alter the synaptic connections that are occurring betwixt and between their neurons.

With that in mind, here are some action items to consider:

  • Leverage the Cynefin Framework to assist your team in making sense of situations. This is not a decision making model but one to use when you are trying to determine which environment you are venturing into which will then enable you to take the right type of action in the right order. Click here to watch the David Snowden (Cynefin creator) give you a 7 minute overview.

  • Engineer serendipity. In "Cracking Complexity", authors David Benjamin and David Komlos provide an interesting theory (supported by empirical research) that shows that the only way to overcome variety is with variety. In fact this is called the Law of Requisite Variety and it was developed by Ross Ashby. Essentially this means that when we are dealing with a complex issue that has many components and many potential solutions, we need to ensure that our resources/perspectives are at least equal to our challenges. This is why we need to be able to differentiate between a complicated and complex challenge. When something is complicated, we just need to find the right "specialist" to assist us. If something is complex, we need multiple/various perspectives from which to create one of many potential solutions. We cannot continue to address complex challenges as if they are complicated and think it is just a matter of finding the right answer. Benjamin & Komlos provide a great example of the difference between a complicated and complex challenge I think everyone can easily understand. Planning a wedding is a complicated challenge. Staying happily married is a complex one.

  • Create "collision teams". This is also from Benjamin and Komlos and speaks directly to positioning yourself with enough variety to address complex challenges. They use the formula of n(n-1) to understand the impact of the team you put together. If you have 10 people on your team, then there are 90 (10x9) connections that can provide unique interactions...which equals variety. The more complex the challenge, the greater the variety needed. The leadership challenge in this situation is ceding control so that you are not the hub in the traditional hub and spoke model as this will short-circuit the process. This group has to be egalitarian in nature so everyone can collide with everyone else to leverage the variety. As the leader, you have to seek the best decision which might not be yours.

  • Embrace V.U.C.A. Our world is increasingly volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous. In order to thrive in this environment our concept of leadership must continually adapt. In fact, the folks at VUCA-World provide us with the following as list of the requisite leadership skills necessary and they are: Vision, Understanding, Clarity, and Agility/Adaptability (interestingly enough they spell out V.U.C.A. as well). This means it will much less about control and more about and an emergent style of leadership that has it foundations in relentlessness. True leaders will approach their work much like Sisyphus approached his rock!

  • Emulate John Coltrane, not Leonard Bernstein. Leadership is like playing jazz not leading an orchestra. Don't imagine you are in control and that everyone is anxiously awaiting your instruction. The world moves too quickly for this centralized command and control approach. Even the military realized this and you can read about those very changes in retired General Stanley McChrystal's book "Team of Teams". Jazz musicians possess a set of skills that will serve leaders well when facing complex challenges and those are: taking turns leading, really listening, planning to not have a plan, and parking their ego at the door. If this interests you, check out the entire Columbia Business School article.

We will continue to face high levels of complexity as the world continues to shrink. The old levers we used to solve problems and drive results will not work tomorrow so we must treat these new challenges with requisite variety. We cannot continue to treat complex challenges as if they are complicated problems that can be solved by coming up with the "right" solution. Being adept at engineering serendipity will pay huge dividends but only if we are able to act our way into a new way of thinking.

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