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.




Don’t ask the weatherman

Bob Dylan – Music Legend

You don’t have to be a weather man to know which way the wind’s blowing. So said Bob Dylan, iconic musician. Gary Klein, world authority on intuitive behavior and developer of the Recognition-Primed Decision (RPD) model, seems to agree. In the same way as you can predict the weather by looking out a window and noticing what the patterns are, so too experienced leaders and teams can make great decisions and work effectively using their instinctive know-how.

So what is the RPD model? It has two principle parts. The first is Intuition. We use experience to recognize key patterns that indicate the dynamics of any given situation. Recognising a pattern, our intuition tells us what course to take – what makes sense. This is not an analytic process. It’s a pattern matching process. We have seen it before – it’s familiar. Our recognition is made up of understanding:

  • What goals make sense in this situation so we can set priorities.
  • Which cues are important so we can avoid information overload.
  • What to expect next so we can prepare ourselves and notices surprises.
  • Typical ways of responding to the situation.

This works the same way as when we look out the window to see what the weather’s doing. It looks like rain – I’ll take an umbrella. It looks like it’s clearing – I won’t need my coat. Decision made in a moment.

The second part comes when we imagine we’re taking the course of action we first hit upon. Klein calls this Mental Simulation. We evaluate this course of action by imagining we are carrying it out. We spot any weaknesses and find ways to avoid them – we make quick improvements.  It looks like rain – I’ll take an umbrella – Might get windy (this is Wellington after all) – Will the umbrella be enough? Better take a coat too.

Imagine you could understand the priorities of a situation, what information was important and what wasn’t, what might trip you up and what action to take, all in the blink of an eye. Well you can. You do. Klein found that experienced leaders and teams that trust their intuition and mental simulation, can take less than a minute to consider complex options and come to a good course of action. Less than a minute. Think about it.

Moreover, Klein found that most decisions (80%) were made this way – even in non-routine, difficult and complex situations.

Gary Klein – Author
Sources of Power

But work’s not like the weather, right? Wrong.  Can you see when the storm clouds are gathering in your office? Can you look at how the operation is running and know you’ve got a problem on your hands without needing a report? Ever had your sixth sense tell you, you need to take particular steps and you just go ahead and do it? That’s Recognition-Primed Decision-making at work. Trust it.

Trust the “conglomeration of [your] incredible past – whatever experience gotten in any way whatsoever” (Dylan), take your nose out of the report, stick your head out a window, check the weather and make a decision. Don’t wait for a report to tell you what you already know.

Slow down – and go faster

Last Friday I wenslowdownnotaracet to check out a new gym. I was surprised when I walked in. There weren’t dozens of people on loads of machines looking miserable or bored. This was a modest place; few mirrors, no sparkly machines, no nightclub music thumping out.  And – here’s the thing – the people there were all smiling. Even the ones with sweat pouring off them. I had to go in.

After talking to the Personal Trainer for a short time, doing a few warm-ups, and hammering the point that I was no Bear Grylls, we got into the session. He didn’t give me a run through of what was ahead. He simply said we would do a series of exercises and he would time me. Time me? I attempted a smile. I’m not sure I pulled it off.

The rowing, weights and squats it turned out, were the easy bits. The push-ups and sled pull finished me off. My heart was thumping. I was gasping for air. The water bottle was draining fast. My trainer had clearly missed the message or I had stumbled into a secret SAS training camp.

A few minutes later when I could actually speak again, he asked me how I thought I had gone. Too spent to put up any bravado I simply said I was amazed I had been able to finish at all. My brain had stopped worrying about failure and had simply focused on what needed doing.

Imagine my delight when he told me I had come in well under the time he had set me.

Imagine my despair when he told me I had to do it all again. And faster this time. No chance, my brain said. No chance at all.

Immediately I started to focus my mind on the hardest bits and start worrying all over again. With perfect timing, he said two magic words to me. Slow down.

As I went through the circuit again he paced me, getting me to slow down my running, take a quick pause between each activity and remember to take on water as I went. My second time was even faster.

Don’t get me wrong – I was still exhausted the second time. But not only had I done the circuit twice when I seriously doubted I could do it at all. I had done it faster. Faster! And my recovery was much better this time round too.

Many simple truths can be found in life’s everyday experiences. These from the gym:

  • Fully focus on the task at hand before moving on to the next one. Take a pause before you do to reset and refocus.
  • Pace yourself – life’s circuits just keep coming and you don’t always know how long they will be. Hold a bit in reserve until you see the summit – then throw yourself across it.
  • Keep up the ‘fuel’ reserves. Don’t skip the things that keep you (and your brain) moving. Breakfast, lunch, water – been missing those lately?
  • Have a buddy with you on the journey – your own personal trainer to help pace, motivate, and even save you from yourself when you need it.
  • Sometimes its best not to know how hard something is before you start.
  • You can achieve more than you ever thought possible when you least expect it.

The leaders I work with are doing ‘circuits’ day-in day-out in some shape or form. Is this true for you as well?

Try slowing down – you might be surprised how fast you can go and what you can achieve.

With thanks to Scot Auty from the Results Room who reminded me how to slow down.

Leadership development (without the expensive programmes) Part 2

img1316_2Exposure to (challenging) experiences is the key to leadership development (Thomas, Lombardo & Eichenger, and many others). This is great news to those with little or no development budget to spend on fancy programmes.

How though can you get the most from these learning opportunities, or crucibles? Spot them. Grab them. Exploit them.

Spot them

Some argue that crucibles can be hard to spot – but I disagree. Keep an eye out for these clues and you’re probably looking at a crucible

  • There’s a big problem and you have no idea how to tackle it
  • You’re in new territory. You’re disoriented and don’t know how to navigate the landscape.
  • Something you thought was stable turns out to be impermanent
  • A loss or failure has happened
  • A pause. An extended period of reflection and deliberation is happening

Grab them

Being on the edge of what we don’t know is a scary place. It could be the right time to grab a crucible when:

  • You feel consistently frustrated with a situation or dilemma, or challenge so that you want to tackle it
  • You are on the cusp of what you don’t know
  • It is an area of your life you care about deeply and are motivated to do something about
  • There is sufficient support to be able to persist in the face of anxiety and conflict
  • You accept you will make mistakes
  • You accept you may fail but will learn from the failure

Exploit them

Inside the crucible is where the development is. You can exploit a crucible when the following come together:

  • Prepare – learn to separate fact from perception, ask penetrating questions, observe, and be honest about your own motives, aspirations, values, stereotypes and expectations.
  • Act – practice over and over. Each performance is a learning opportunity
  • Reflect – how did it go? What have you learned? How did others experience you?
  • Support – ask trusted, critical friends to support you and hold the mirror up

Organisations would do well to assist individuals to exploit the learning opportunities already to hand. The role is to aid leaders to spot (and create) opportunities, prepare for and adapt to new experiences, reflect and learn from them, and continually renew themselves as leaders.

Leadership development (without the expensive programmes) Part 1

I often hear Development practitioners refering to Lombardo and Eichinger’s (Center for Creative Leadership) model of 70 – 20 -10. The model says that circa:

70% of our learning comes from on the job experiences, tasks and problem solving activity

20% from feedback we receive from others or the system, and from working through good and bad examples of what you are trying to do

10% from courses and reading

That’s right. Only about 10% of our learning comes from formal courses and reading. And yet, time and time again that is where organisations are putting the majority of their scarce development resources. They cling to the hope that “sheep dip” style programmes will somehow generate enough learning, better managers and inspiring leaders. But they don’t.

In his recent research Nick Petrie (Centre for Creative Leadership) asked the question “What should be stopped or phased out in leadership development?” The answer? “Stop sending people to courses they don’t want to go to”. If not courses, then what? There are numerous learning opportunities for managers, leaders and indeed everyone with organisations if only they are recognised and harnessed. Bob Thomas calls these learning opportunities Crucibles of Leadership. Crucibles are particularly prevalent in times of change, times of impermanence. Times like we are experiencing right now. Rich learning opportunities exist all around us.

Bob Thomas offers a simple first step. Work with individuals to help them to understand how they learn. As Bob says “Great leaders are great learners” (2008). The focus is on how an individual learns rather than what is learned. The emphasis is important. Once an individual understands how they learn best and under what conditions, it is much easier to recognise learning crucibles and exploit them. Crucibles alone do not create learning – it is how individuals respond to them and what they draw from them. The role of those supporting development in organisations should be to assist individuals to exploit the learning opportunities already to hand. Letting go of the development programme paradigm is needed and needed now; if for no other reason than most organisations simply can’t afford it.

In Part 2 I will look at some of the tactics and approaches that help individuals get the most from the learning opportunities, crucibles, they are presented with.