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17 February 2020

Next Steps in Complexity

Written by
Cornelis Tanis

This begins to feel like a ‘Procession of Etternach’!  Over the years I have sometimes heard people sigh this during meetings. And more often after meetings. It points to their experience of being part of a slow and inefficient process.

The procession of Etternach is held every Whit Tuesday around the streets of Etternach in Luxembourg. It honours Willibrord, the patron saint of Luxembourg, who established the Abbey of Etternach in the year 698. Starting at the bridge over the local river, the procession moves through the village streets towards the basilica, a distance of about 1.5 kilometres. The completion takes a few hours though, because making progress involves taking three steps forward and two backward.

The metaphor occurred to me after I had moderated a session with four partners of a professional services firm. The aim of the session was to help them reflect on their collaboration as part of a journey that we started three months before. They had reserved 2.5 hours for this and we had agreed on a rough outline for the dialogue. When I asked them about their intention, three of the leaders expressed – in different forms – that they would like to see concrete next steps at the end of the session. Then, in order to get their personal experiences in the room early, I asked them to reflect on how they felt about their personal progress. One of the leaders immediately started to ‘unload’ how he felt about the current situation, the interactions, the pressure for results, and some very recent irritations about roles. After trying to establish some more boundaries for the conversation and some prickly comments of one of his colleagues, it became clear that we needed to talk about what was happening here and make choices. One of the leaders suggested that we would need to take a step back and consider whether the timing was actually right to continue the dialogue. We decided to have break and resume the conversation after 10 minutes. What followed turned out to be a series of side conversations and of conversations about the conversation.

After the ‘break’ we spent some time talking about the idea of taking a step back. We noticed that a few of us had initially placed a negative value on this proposal. As if taking a step back would get us further removed from the next steps that were needed. Or as if we were now getting behind, which should have been prevented. At this point in the dialogue, I also heard an inner voice telling me that I should have done X and that I could now do Y to solve it.

Then it occurred to me that in complex situations (this one being no exception to all human stuckness and conflict) there is often very little to ‘solve’, at least in our traditional understanding of the word. Leading when things are unpredictable and complex needs less ‘knowing and showing’ and more ‘being and seeing’. Then not doing something can actually be a good idea. In our case, the break helped surface patterns between the team members and we talked about some of these. The team members then started to remind themselves of the commitment they identified three months ago:  ‘We are committed to getting better at having earlier and better conversations about collaboration in our team when the tension rises’. They also talked more about how they experienced whether they were making progress or not. By the end of the session they were actually quite satisfied that the progress they had made was that they really listened to each other.

Whereas in a predictable context a narrow destination can serve as an effective reference point for defining linear next steps, in more unpredictable, complex situations we benefit from another form of next steps. Here we work towards a direction rather than a destination. With this broader horizon our definition of ‘next steps’ needs to move beyond the linear notion of next. These forms of progress (an interesting etymological term, by the way) can take various shapes and speeds, and I have listed some possibilities below.

  • A side-step. In complexity, rather than getting right into the centre of an issue, it is often more effective to do a small move at the edges to learn about and begin to nudge the system that we are in. For example, a board member who just joined a large family-owned corporation with a remit to help the organization become more innovative, decided to ask a senior family member in her team for walks during lunch time. During these walks she aimed to connect as persons instead of as a family member or an outsider. As a result of this side-step they both became learners; something that may have been less probable had she chosen to make a blazing start with a culture survey and change program aimed at aligning the family values with the latest strategy.
  • A ‘sure place’ step. This is the equivalent of ‘don’t just do something, stand there!’ An example could be the 10 minute break that created new possibilities in the above-mentioned team session. It could also include taking a few breaths or doing some stretching when you feel the action and control urge rising up inside you as a result of, for example, a contentious message appearing on your phone screen or in your inbox. I suppose a version of this could also include turning off your phone for an hour or deactivating the many notifications on WhatsApp all together.
  • A step back. When we pay attention to how we have come to the meeting (and we don’t mean whether it was by car or by bike!) it can reduce the amount of anxiety in the room and help build human connections. A good check-in question at the start of a meeting can bring thoughts, feelings, and sensations into our awareness that allow everyone to be more present. This takes the place of being held captive by emotions that co-arise when our mind automatically drifts to thoughts like: ‘What’s next? What am I going to say? I can’t believe he is still here! or I wished I had prepared better…’.
  • A step up, to the balcony. This can involve noticing with others what the patterns, outliers or absences are when reflecting on a collective experience. For example, by going to the balcony a team may notice that the setup of their meetings seems to privilege extraversion, or that the men in the group tend to speak first. This awareness then creates a possibility for reflection on how well this is serving them, which may lead them to make more conscious choices, such as running experiments with more inclusive meeting structures.
  • A step deeper. My impression is that in settings where the participants operate more from a predictable mindset, the focus of the conversations can quickly gear towards solving things, people, and ideas ‘out there’. This fascination with the ‘exterior’ may blindside everyone from that which is going on in the ‘interior’. Creating room for people to share and listen first to each other’s ideas about what is going on for them personally or collectively ‘in here’, can be a helpful step when dealing with a complex, unpredictable challenge.

Reflecting further on my experience around the team session, I noticed how I may also be too subject to the idea that ‘next steps’ equals linear progress. Especially when I face requests for predictable outcomes from senior leaders (or family members…), with limited time, strong opinions, and I add my eagerness to help, my inclination towards control is still strong. Over the years, I have gotten better at resisting this pull and I am becoming more comfortable with ‘being and seeing’. Here are a few things that have helped.

  • Exposure to different people and different ideas. For example, not until I read an article about the members of a native North American tribe who point behind their back to refer to the future, did I become aware that not everybody thinks that the future is physically in front of us. Their perspective makes tons of sense too: we can see the past, but not the future!
  • Witnessing others in action. Some years ago, I found myself in awe of the way my colleague Frits engaged, seemingly effortlessly and as an equal human being, in what I would have considered to be very difficult conversation. He seemed to have no script, just an endless supply of different moves and gentle and firm ways of saying things. I tried to copy this for a while, but it didn’t stick. I think I was ‘in over my head’ then. In retrospect, I suspect Frits had developed a more nuanced way of seeing himself in relation to others than I had available to me at the time. Today, I am sure I continue to be ‘in over my head’ for certain things, but they are different things. Even though these moves now come more naturally to me, I try not to take that for granted, because I am well aware that I can still easily be triggered into old—and less skilful—ways of engaging when I feel tired or unsure or threatened in some way. I am grateful to have more than one ‘Frits’ as colleagues and clients these days.
  • Surfacing and testing assumptions. The ‘next steps equal linear progress’ is an example of an assumption that influences our behaviour before, during, and after meetings. Once aware of an assumption like this, we can begin to engage it and test whether it is always true. Asking ourselves questions like ‘How do I know that?’ or running experiments like ‘Not doing something’ can open up a bigger world for us in which we have more choices fit for complexity.
  • Being deliberate about getting better at working with complexity. Because of the work that I do, I often choose to be in situations where I am deliberately stretching myself beyond where I feel comfortable. This is less self-congratulatory than it may appear, actually. Learning to work with complexity instead of against it, often feels quite disruptive. Being inside a deliberately developmental organization, in good company of friends, makes the journey priceless though.

In 1947 the town of Etternach decided to change the ‘three forward and two backward’ movement into a type of dance where you hop from your left to right foot and thus slowly move forward. At that time, the ‘three minus two’ version created too much chaos for the taste of the town rulers; they were ready for something more predictable, it seems. As we develop as leaders and as we develop our teams, it might be good to notice how we are with chaos and disruption. Creating a safe (enough) space and pace for forms of next steps that include some chaos and disruption may be essential to help us reintegrate parts of ourselves that served us in earlier stages of development.

Quo vadis?

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