The wicked problem of leading in a complex world

266FE045-C92E-4D95-B71A-FBF37D040322 - Version 2You’ve heard it before – the world is changing at an unprecedented pace. Today, the seemingly permanent is disappearing at an alarming rate leaving behind it a wake of uncertainty accompanied by a clamour to go faster, do less with more, bring order to the chaos, return profit to the shareholder and keep the Minister happy.

Its tough out there. For leaders and their organizations. But does it have to be this way? Are we doing enough to develop leaders and leadership today for tomorrow in NZ?

In partnership with Inspire Group I set off to find out. We headed North, South and places in between to interview around 60 academics, HR and OD specialists, and (of course) those in business who daily live the challenge of leading.

What did we find? A clear restlessness with the status quo. An appetite to extend leaders, and develop leadership in new ways better suited to the challenges of today’s world. There was a real frustration in the air. A sense that what is being, while still important, is definitely not enough.

What was less clear for those we interviewed was how to go about it.

To that end, we offer this white paper as a contribution toward challenging the status quo. It provides a stepping off point for those who are inspired by and ready to experiment with new approaches to The wicked problem of leading in a complex world.

For those short on time, here it is in a nutshell.

Nothing stands still

We think we must pay much greater attention to five conditions underpinning many of the challenges of the 21st Century.

  • Permeable boundaries–it is easier and faster than ever before for ideas, information, technology and so on to cross personal, organizational and global boundaries.
  • System dynamics–interactions have increased and become more interdependent which means there is more unpredictable variation, more uncertainty. The system is in continuous flux.
  • Intractable (wicked) problems are no longer the exception – leaders are routinely faced with problems to which there is no known solution or correct answer
  • Increased social complexity–there is harder to reach shared understanding of problems and make decisions about solutions.
  • Paradox is the norm – a world of contradicting co-existing states must be managed

Leadership is critical to New Zealand’s prosperity

For us leadership effectiveness is not a nice to have ideal. It is an economic imperative. New Zealanders work harder and earn less than most other people in the developed world and yet we have one of the lowest rates of productivity growth. Ineffective leadership has a significant part to play.

  • NZ firms are ranked 14th out of 17 OECD countries for effective people management (2011).
  • NZ organisations are typified by cultures that promote aggressive and passive behavior concurrently.
  • Only 23% of New Zealanders are engaged in their work. Only 19% of our leaders are.

If for no other reason than our continued prosperity as a country, new approaches to developing leadership must be found.

Today’s approaches are necessary but not enough

Today’s approaches to development remain necessary and important, however they are often undermined and compromised by unhelpful practices. We share those most often affecting NZ development efforts.

In addition to traditional approaches leaders require new paradigms and ways of thinking so they can respond and adapt to complex contexts.

Beyond the individual, more attention to working with systems to stimulate the emergence of leadership is needed. Understanding how leadership emerges from complex systems of human interactions is requires attention.

There are no silver bullets – and no-one is coming

Developing leaders and stimulating leadership is a complex matter and by definition, complex matters have no best practice or correct answers. No silver bullets. However, attention to individual and system factors can inform development efforts and increase the favourable odds.

For individual development the following areas warrant particular attention:

  • Conditions for cognitive development
  • Identity
  • Sensemaking

From a system perspective, three aspects of interactions should inform development work:

  • Leadership is a group process
  • Network position and behaviour
  • Emergent leadership

Experimentation and practise are necessary

Working with complex systems requires experimentation, reflection and refinement. We present a sample of techniques and approaches we (and our clients) have found useful to experiment with. Each of these has been deliberately designed and developed to work with the individual and system conditions and dynamics discussed here.

Challenging the status quo – 8 guiding questions

While we know there are no sure-fire, single answers to developing leaders or stimulating leadership, we wondered if it was possible to draw out a framework compatible with traditional approaches and at the same time with the complexity of a networked, dynamic and interdependent world? It was.

We pose 8 questions to ask of any development programme that we believe will increase the likelihood of developing leaders and stimulating leadership that goes beyond conventional thinking.




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