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22 July 2014

Telling Tales About Complexity – Part 2: Starting from the Problem

Written by
Keith Johnston

While I had been studying for my Masters, in Chaos, Complexity, and Creativity, I had been intrigued by how these ideas could change the ways leaders and organisations might respond to complexity in their work. However, on completion, nigh on 14 years ago, I was left wondering, so what? These are powerful ideas and metaphors but how do I really use them effectively as a leader and how do groups of us use these ideas to address organisational challenges?

Perhaps perversely, over the course of my studies I had found it harder and harder to translate the concepts into approaches and actions my fellow leaders, working in a practical service-delivery government agency, could use, or even understand. I felt like I was going backwards. There were three ways I seemed to be failing to connect with them: the ideas and ways they might be applied were still very conceptual; I did not understand these concepts well enough to make the translation; and my colleagues, schooled in conventional approaches to management, wanted to be able to predict, plan, and control. Who could blame them for this latter need? They were accountable for spending public money in often difficult and hazardous situations. They needed to control things to carry out specified actions, deliver results, and do it safely and efficiently.

Jump forward in time by more than a decade. My Cultivating Leadership colleagues and I are puzzling about how to get more traction teaching systems thinking and complexity. We had already been using David Snowden’s Cynefin framework when Jennifer attended a workshop with Snowden and got a much better grip on the nuances of the approach. Once I got over my frustration that she was pointing to things that seemed so obvious now but must have been hiding from me in plain sight for the past decade or so, a range of better ways to teach complexity opened up.

What has changed across the three ways where I was failing to connect before? The application of the concepts is better. There are more accessible practical tools that have been more widely applied. Cynefin stands out but there are a host of ways into these issues that can be made accessible to leaders rather than just teams of experts.

One of the strengths of Cynefin, rather than some of our earlier approaches, is that it starts where the leader is at – lost in the disorder of the presenting issues, as most of us are most of the time, uncertain about the nature of the challenge and where to start. Cynefin then helps us to think about the characteristics of the challenge, how much can be known, and therefore the different methods we might bring to bear, rather than starting with the systems thinking tools we know best and bending the issues to fit them.

Beyond the descriptive power of Cynefin there are now also better thought through things leaders can do. Snowden has safe-to-fail experiments. Heifetz offers adaptive leadership. Stacey points to responsive group processes. We have tried to build a synthesis of the best of these elements into our leadership programmes.

A second reason why I am getting more from these ideas the second time around is that I now understand them in a more intuitive way. Is this more familiarity? More exposure to them through teaching? It may be both these things and also the felt experience of trying to live these ideas. In his book The Five Percent Peter Coleman uses the idea of a landscape of attractor basins to provide a powerful explanation of how five percent of conflicts become deeply intractable. These notions, of how conflicts, relationship, and conversations self-organise into attractor basins that deepen or become more shallow, seem to me to apply well beyond the most intractable situations. I feel these are ideas I can now see playing out in front me in much more familiar ways.

A final thought on why it is we seem to be getting more traction: I wonder if the participants are more able to acknowledge that complex situations are different and ones where the old tools disappoint. Perhaps the participants hungrier for these ‘new’ ideas? Perhaps they have had more direct experience with the limitations of predicting, planning, and controlling.

Many challenges still remain. One of these is how we show people practical applications of these ideas and have them understand that complexity happens in their lives and not over there where somebody else could be dealing with it. More on the personal application of complexity in a coming blog……

One thought on “Telling Tales About Complexity – Part 2: Starting from the Problem”

  1. Joey Chan says:

    I have also read The Five Percent. I love it! And strongly recommending it.


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