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31 December 2019

Four things I learned from a Gender and Complexity Experiment

Written by
Carolyn Coughlin

For years, I’ve been preoccupied by the stubborn issue of gender inequality in the workplace, particularly in the ranks of leadership. Since 2012,  when my eyes were first opened to the subtle patterns and biases that work against women (which you can read about here), I have begun to seek out more women coaching clients, especially those in the critical transition from early manager to senior leader. I have followed the new research on gender diversity, watched with fascination as a few women willing to speak up about their abuse at the hands of powerful men sparked the #metoo movement, and written the occasional blog about the connections between gender bias and complexity and adult development. I suppose it’s been more of a hobby than anything.

Then, in January of this year, as I was thinking about my intentions for 2019, my dear friend and colleague, Anne, gently but firmly challenged me to take this “hobby” a bit further, promising that if I gathered together a group of people who were also interested in this topic, she’d be all in. So, I found a date and a place and invited 5 amazing women to spend two days together. It was an experiment, guided only by the question–what might happen if I set aside two days to explore this topic with people I love?  What happened was that the experiment led to several more experiments, including: holding an Advice Call[1] on the topic with a sizable group of other Cultivating Leadership colleagues; starting a Slack channel called #genderandcomplexity; and hosting a Gender and Complexity Day, for which we would provide a light structure (mainly introducing a framework and some common language to shape our exploration) and to which we would invite anyone who would like to spend a day exploring this topic with us

Here’s some of what I learned from those experiments.

People get complexity because we all live it every day

When I first started teaching about complexity 10 years ago, I was afraid people would either find it too academic to be useful, or they would outright reject the idea that some things were not solvable, even by really smart people. Over the years, I have been proven wrong time and time again. In retrospect, this shouldn’t be all that surprising, since all of us live in a world where very little is actually predictable or controllable. Anyone who has raised children or led a team or tried to get themselves or others to change can rattle off countless examples of thinking things would go one way only to have them go quite another. We humans have an amazing capacity to tell ourselves (and actually believe) that if we had only worked harder, been smarter, planned better, or had the right people involved, we could, in fact, have predicted and controlled how things would go. But most of us know at some level that this is an illusion. Give most people 5 minutes to create a list of things in their own lives that could accurately be described as complex (see this video for a primer on complexity,) and most of them would have filled a couple pages and still be writing when time was up. Indeed, rather than finding the idea of complexity confusing or irrelevant, most people find it to be both compelling and liberating. 

The Cynefin Framework helpfully changes how we see and talk about problems

The Cynefin (pronounced Ke-ne-vin) Framework, developed by Dave Snowden in 1999 and made more widely available in the 2007 HBR article by Snowden and his partner Mary Boone, is a sense-making and decision-making framework. It is comprised of five “domains” which I tend to think of as lenses we can look through that shape how we see a problem and, therefore, how we might skillfully act when faced with that situation. Each domain is essentially defined by the nature of the relationship between cause and effect.[2] Over the years, I’ve come to believe that the single most useful thing about the Cynefin Framework is that it gives people a language to describe different sorts of problems. It enables people to see and talk about the fact that not all problems are created equal. So, if a problem is by its very nature Complex, but we are taking a problem-solving approach that is better suited to the Obvious or the Complicated Domain, we are barking up the wrong tree. And almost certainly creating more problems than we are solving. And wasting time. And causing unnecessary confusion and debate. It has been astonishing to me that after a mere 20-minute introduction to the Cynefin Framework, many clients report a radical change in how they see their challenges or even their entire job or role. For intact teams who are in conflict or stuck in some way, gaining an understanding of complexity through the Cynefin Framework is often a game changer.

Some of our participants in the Gender and Complexity Day reported that, after learning about Cynefin and using it to bring their own challenges into different focus, they went back to their organizations with an entirely new way of seeing many of the challenges they and their organizations face. And in some cases, even when they didn’t necessarily have the role authority to mandate new ways of doing things, they reported being able to try small experiments and/or engage people in different sorts of conversations. And who knows where those will lead?

The questions we ask shape what we see

Back in my management consulting days, I learned that clearly defining the problem is a critical first step in problem solving. True, but when dealing with complex problems (as opposed to complicated ones,) it is tempting but not advisable to spend an inordinate amount of time on problem definition. Marilee Adams tells us in her book Change Your Questions Change Your Life that our questions shape what we see. I find this to be extremely helpful advice when working in the complex space. What exactly was the question driving our curiosity around women and leadership was surprisingly unclear. The six of us spent the better part of day sharing our experiences with, and hopes around “this issue,” looking at the patterns, before arriving at a question we felt was good enough to guide our exploration.

“How can we create the conditions for men and women to have an equally good chance of thriving?”

It was this question that guided us to design a number of experiments, including the one about inviting others to explore it with us at the Gender and Complexity Day. In our invitation to that Day, we led with our core question, hoping to tap into people’s curiosity about and experience with gender differences and the conditions for thriving. Given the number of people who signed up, it seemed many people found the question resonant. But one registrant challenged us to look at the way our question might focus our exploration and attention in potentially limiting ways, i.e., that it contained the assumption of gender as binary. What about people who don’t experience themselves as either man or woman? We could well have decided that, for our purposes, we did want to treat gender as binary. And I could see the ways that the participant’s challenge itself enabled me to notice that I had in fact been seeing the gender parity issue as a man/woman issue and so, largely, is it seen in organizations and in the media. What might we be missing by seeing it this way? What might we see if we changed the question just a little? Here’s where we ended up:

“How can we create the conditions for all genders to have an equally good chance of thriving?”

Of course, we could have (and were tempted to) expand the question even further to include other forms of disparity, but we decided that would become so unwieldy as to be limiting.

Just try something and learn like crazy

One of the most liberating things about a complexity lens is the release from thinking that there will be a solution and, therefore, the pressure of having to find one. In fact, a complexity lens tells us that seeking solutions is not only unhelpful and generally a waste of precious time and effort, it can actually be anti-helpful. This is because in complex systems, any intervention can have unintended consequences, and the more effort we have put into finding the “right” solution, the more we tend to be attached to it, and the less likely we are to notice when our solution is actually doing more damage than good. 

Even more liberating is that in the complex space, the name of the game is experimentation. Lots of it. And here, we’re talking about small, less than fully formed experiments whose main criteria are that they (1) are easy and low-resource to do, (2) can be easily stopped if not moving things in the direction we want, and (3) are designed and carried out with the intention to learn something about the nature and inclinations of the system and not about fixing or winning. 

Our experiments fit these criteria. The Gender and Complexity Day experiment was easy and low resource to do in that we held it at a venue and on a day that was adjacent to a workshop we were already running. And we charged participants a very small fee, just enough to cover our venue costs for the extra day. Because it was just one day with no promise of anything but to provide a loose structure for exploration, there was no expectation that we would continue the experiment beyond the one day for which we invited people. And we were very clear that this day was about our own learning—would people come? Would they find the complexity lens helpful? Would they do anything afterward? (We gave everyone the run sheet and encouraged all participants to go forth and hold similar days with their communities or wherever they wished.) Would new connections get made? 

So, what did we learn? I suspect we will be learning for quite some time as things play out. So far, we have heard stories of people using what they learned in their own organizations. Of mindset shifts. Of people asking themselves different questions. We also learned that people (including those of us who hosted the day) are busy, which meant that only a small number of people joined for our follow up call; we got many apology messages from those who wanted to attend but couldn’t. There are undoubtedly many things people learned that we don’t know about.

Perhaps the most unexpected thing I learned was how simply asking the question and running some experiments has, in and of itself, shifted the awareness of gender dynamics in our own firm, Cultivating Leadership. In our new #genderandcomplexity Slack Channel, people post articles of interest as well as personal reflections on the topic. We ask ourselves different questions and have conversations about how gender dynamics play out in our system. In complexity, simply starting conversations is an intervention because it changes what we notice, and therefore, how we behave and interact, and therefore, what is more or less possible. I suspect our little firm will be doing more work in this space than we would have done without the experiment. And we will be different with each other. We already are.

Because complex problems, by their very nature, don’t settle, and require that we continually probe, scan, and learn, I’d like to conclude this little blog on “what we learned” with a request for you. What are you learning? If you were with us on September 6th or even if you weren’t, but you have been noticing and experimenting with this question of how can we create the conditions for all genders to have an equally good chance of thriving (or whatever your version of the question is), please share your stories!


[1] At Cultivating Leadership, because we are a remote and globally distributed firm, we have experimented with a number of ways to work with the polarity of structure and flexibility. One of our earlier experiments led to what we now call Advice Calls (inspired by Frederic Laloux’s book Reinventing Organizations) in which any member of CL who is starting a new piece of work or simply wants to explore a topic invites everyone in the firm to join them by video conference. Depending on the timing and the topic, our Advice Calls usually see between 5 and 15 people show up, and many more listen to the recording. 

[2] See this brief video or this article for more about the Cynefin framework.

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