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13 June 2024

What happens when complexity becomes a buzzword?

Written by
Nicolai Tillisch

If I say VUCA, what do you say?

It could be the name of a posh, new, must-be-tried steakhouse in New York.

In fact, an increasing number of well-trained executives know that it stands for “volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity.” Originally it was coined to describe the world order after the Cold War. And today, few aspiring leadership development programs occur without an hour on VUCA or the topic of complexity.

For me, it’s crucial that we pay attention to complexity, as it’s a place making it increasingly challenging for leaders to be effective. That said, I do get worried when anything vital, to pay attention to, as complexity is, becomes a nonchalant buzzword. 

Will complexity finally be recognized as the place we are often operating in? Or will complexity receive increasingly superficial treatment? Is complexity just another management fad?

Will leaders get the support they need to thrive in our ever more complex world?

A personal confession

Do you recognize the experience of revisiting a concept again after some years and having an epiphany the second time around?

It felt like just another article in the Harvard Business Review back in 2007 when I read Dave Snowden and Mary Boone’s “A Leader’s Framework for Decision Making. I recall being surprised that the article was accepted for publication. It reminded me of the framework used to analyze uncertainty in McKinsey’s strategy approach to uncertainty circa 2000. 

My surprise grew when I realized it had been voted the best Harvard Business Review article of the year.

This had become a faint memory when, a few years later, I read the manuscript of Jennifer Garvey Berger and Keith Johnston’s book Simple Habits for Complex Times: Powerful practices for leaders.

Jennifer and Keith were the faculty at the first Growth Edge Coaching course I attended. They are also two of the four co-founders of Cultivating Leadership, which has pioneered the integration of complexity thinking and adult development theory into leadership development. I was lucky enough to join their firm later.

There in their book was Snowden’s Cynefin model again.

As I read a coin dropped for me: dealing with complexity is not solely a cognitive skill; it’s an experience that puts our nervous system on alert and demands that we act as a greater version of ourselves. 

And instantly, what I had already learned was crystal clear to me: We often do not, at least yet, have the capacity to deal with the degree of complexity we face. We cannot see that at the moment. It is, to use the words of the developmental psychologist Bob Kegan, “in over our heads.”

What’s complex in the corporate world?

I had a simplistic view of complexity during my corporate career from 1996 to 2011. Despite struggling with several complex challenges, I considered each of them exceptional and tried to find simple solutions – an approach that is not so helpful in complexity.

Here are three examples.

  • Crashing a startup during the dot.com bubble burst: I was a young managing director for an ambitious branding consultancy in a leading global advertising network. We had been hiring, greedily motivated by initial commercial success, when suddenly we stopped winning so much business. The overall market for branding and advertising abruptly dropped in December 2000 and continued a downward trajectory. My firm’s finances were bleeding fast. For many years afterwards I blamed myself, and entertained thoughts about what I could have done differently. Certainly, I learned a few things that I’ve applied in other entrepreneurial endeavors; yet there had been so many factors in play that were beyond my control. I had been uncomfortable in this complexity and had limited ability to cope with such circumstances.
  • Leading in a matrix organization: In a later job, at a large international telecom corporation, over a few years my staffing numbers grew from one to 600. These people worked distributed in various regions in a matrix organization defined by products and markets. Some reported to me with solid lines on the chart, others with dotted lines. I spent vast amounts of time on the phone with direct reports, my twin managers in the matrix, and our collective stakeholders. Most of us believed that our difficulties in running the business were due to our structure, this led us to make organizational changes. Some dotted lines became solid. At one point, all my lines became dotted. Later, they all became solid. Our unit was given a new name from time to time and was moved about in the scheme of the grander organization. While I welcomed some of these changes, I couldn’t clearly sense the full picture. I resigned after being introduced to my fourth new boss in 18 months.
  • Leading people in different cultures: Working in two American corporations as a Scandinavian was a stretch for me as my default behaviors, behaving modestly and being reserved were at odds with my American colleagues norms. Yet the difference was nothing compared to leading teams in Brazil, Russia, India, China, Africa, and the Middle East. I made a big effort to notice our human similarities and build personal connections. Genuinely curious I read up on the various cultures and their fascinating histories. In hindsight, I can see how curbing myself in group sessions and being awkwardly polite whenever somebody disagreed did me no favors. I was playing an away game and hadn’t figured out how to flourish as myself in complex situations.

None of this was due to lack of preparation; I first studied complexity long ago at university during my master’s program. However, complexity is almost unrecognizable in real life, when compared to how it looks in a textbook with straight lines of words; or in an orderly classroom setting. 

Complexity takes time to grasp due to its nerve-racking, kaleidoscopic nature.

How might leaders address complexity?

Based on my hard-earned experience, I have four suggestions for leaders who recognize that complexity is rife in their business.

  • Don’t perceive complex challenges as exceptions that will disappear or be fixed with a simple solution. More than anything else, how you lead in complexity will define you as a leader.
  • Speak openly about complexity, discussing where in the business it occurs, how it keeps evolving over time, and what you learn when navigating it.
  • Accept that a few hours on complexity, alongside other modules in a leadership development program, can never be more than an initial, easily forgettable introduction. (For some, only the term VUCA really does stick.)
  • Pay extra attention to colleagues facing the most complexity and offer them continual support.

Treating complexity as a buzzword and allowing it to be just another management fad could be devastating for both you and your business.

Thriving in complexity demands us to grow.

If you find some of these ideas helpful, I invite you to subscribe to my occasional briefs below.

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