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21 March 2016

Three (and a half) distinctions about communicating in a complex world

Written by
Jennifer Garvey Berger

We have been thinking and writing and teaching lately about the differences in meeting and communicating in complexity versus our more typical ways of communicating in more predictable times. Communication is a central leadership imperative; there’s so little leaders can accomplish without mobilizing a group around them, and the better leaders communicate, the better the mobilization.

Or perhaps it might be fair to say that everything you ever learned about compelling communication is more necessary in complex times than in any other time. Let me explain.

First of all, the leaders I work with tend to under estimate the benefit of practice in an important communication. They’ll work to get the paper or the deck that underlies the communication perfect—from the argument to the font size. This means that when they stand up in front of the room, they know the topic well but not the approach. When they spend 20 minutes actually thinking about their approach with us and then another 20 minutes rehearsing it and getting some quick feedback, they are astonished at how much more effectively they communicate. Many of them would have spent hours—sometimes over the course of weeks or months—on the underlying content, but they recognize how rarely they invest the last 40 minutes that would make the most difference in how the message gets received by others.

But what to practice? There are some key moves a leader can make to create a complexity-friendly communication.

Make your direction emotionally resonant. In a complicated, predictable world, you can be clear and potentially fact-based about your destination. “We’ll be landing in San Francisco in 12 hours and 31 minutes,” my pilot said just now. Now that’s a fact-based destination! It’s not particularly emotionally resonant, but I count on him to deliver me to the exact place and the exact time he said. I have a client who is a CEO of a professional services firm. His whole industry is so disrupted that it’s incredibly complex right now. He can’t assure his colleagues or the market of any particular destination, but he can be clear about the direction, about his commitment to his people to help them develop the skills and approaches for this new world, to his clients to ensure that his firm stays on the front edge of the professional services practice, and to his community to share their values and their hopes for a better future. He can do this in language that sounds vague and ordinary (and will do little to gather their hearts and minds), or he can bring these ideas to life in a crisp and vivid way. This leads us to the next key of communicating in complexity.

Use metaphors to hold the meaning. Metaphors and stories are important in communications all the time. In an obvious, predictable world, though, they are less necessary. We all knew what the pilot meant when he said we would be in San Francisco in 12.5 hours. We didn’t need a story or a metaphor to make that really pop for us. But in a complex space, you could never describe with crisp clarity just where you are going—it’s impossible. And that means that you cannot direct people exactly how to get there. Instead, you’d like everyone to carry enough of the vision in themselves to make their own decisions that support that vision. Walt Disney famously told everyone at his company—from the animators to the ice cream sellers to the janitors—to “delight the audience.” That metaphor is crisp and emotionally relevant. It makes everyone a performer, and every customer becomes an audience member in a performance. It also allows for lots of interpretation—in a particular direction.

Our professional services CEO has started to tell people to “make news” about their quest for innovation. Here he is working to unlock some of his organization’s long-standing fear of making mistakes by encouraging them to be experimental. When they get nervous he reminds them, “The news cycle is very short these days,” a metaphor that means mistakes and failures have a short half life and shouldn’t be so frightening as they have been in the past. I have heard leaders around his organisation encouraging one another with the aim of making news (and indeed there have been many, many more news stories about innovation in this firm in the last 18 months) and the relative freedom of the short news cycle. As we have taught the leaders we work with to really push the metaphors in their thinking, we have watched both the quality of the communication and the quality of their thinking increase. Metaphors pack a massive amount of meaning into a small space, and they are powerful in the way they allow for flexibility within a boundary—key for communicating in complexity. (See Ron Crossland’s Voice Lessons for some more helpful perspective on metaphor and story).

Make your audience the hero. Our final idea is about how to think of your audience as you communicate in complexity—whether they are in person, on VC, or just reading your words. In a complicated, predictable world, the leaders could lead and the rest of us could do our jobs. In a more complex world, each of us has to make thoughtful decisions about how to lead our organisations (and families and communities) into the future. This means that more people are talking about “empowering” others, and we believe in that too—as long as people really mean to empower them to do more and not just to think they are doing more. Even better than the idea of “empowering,” though, is Nancy Duarte’s notion of making the audience the hero. This is an excellent thing to do at all times, but it is especially vital in complexity, when it is particularly necessary for collectives to work together across diverse backgrounds and perspectives to find new ways forward. We have moved from a time of heroic leadership, through servant leadership, and now we see the vital importance of leaders making those around them the heroes of the story. (See Nancy Duarte’s Resonate).

Of course, you could do all those things if you were communicating in a predictable world too. My pilot could have said, “Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, you are the reason for the existence of this plane and your crew. We are like Cinderella’s mice and pumpkin, existing for your pleasure and comfort, long past midnight tonight. Sit back and thank whatever fairy godmother brought you to this chariot on this particular evening.” But I’m kind of glad he didn’t.


(Ok, so the photo today isn’t a great example of communicating in complexity. But isn’t it a fabulous example of complex communications? And that was before my computer decided to post it sideways!)

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