Leading in Complexity – now what?

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March 27th, 2017

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As we saw in my previous blog post (Leading in Complexity – so what?), I believe there are three differences that inform action today to shape our success tomorrow.  These differences don’t go away; they become part of the practice and habits, while the new ones invite innovation and change.

Identifying the significant differences is just the first step.  The second step is to explore what options we have for action, this is driven by what we call Interdependent Pairs.

Now what will I do to leverage the energy locked within the Interdependent Pairs?

Leaders make thousands of decisions every day. Some seem important and turn out to be trivial. Others seem trivial in the moment and prove to be critical in the long-run. There is little time to consult a strategic plan or to work out a rational decision-making process. Alternatives, pros and cons, costs and benefits, risk analyses, and well-documented procedures are simply not practical for the majority of decisions a leader makes. On the other hand, decisions that support success are informed by some kind of coherent and reasonable framework.

The Interdependent Pairs create such a framework. Every decision can quickly be considered in light of an Interdependent Pair. Considering a continuum with the pairs at opposite ends, it is easy to see how major decisions can shift a pattern to favor one or the other. Even minor questions and short-term decisions can shift the system toward one or the other end of the continuum. When this happens often enough, the system begins to shift.

The pairs work best for leadership decision making when leaders:

  • Focus on a few. Interdependent Pairs will be most useful if you can remember them easily and refer to them quickly. Three is great, and you might be able to manage up to five, but after that you will have diminishing returns. Additionally, the reflection and dialogue that help you narrow the list will create shared understanding to support future decision making.
  • Don’t expect to control. The significant pairs you choose for focus are not the only tensions and patterns that drive success. Unless you choose to weigh yourself down with a long list of pairs, you will leave things out. Anything you leave out could rise up and disrupt your plans at any moment. That is the nature of complex systems.
  • Keep your peripheral vision. While you focus on one set, others may be emerging as significant to your clients or competitors. Continually scan the horizon to see what Interdependent Pairs might influence others who are critical to your success.
  • Make them explicit. The more others know about the decision-making criteria, the more prepared they are to make decisions that align with those of leadership.
  • Review and revise them often. The Interdependent Pairs depend on the internal and external environments that will determine success. When the conditions shift, the primary concerns may need to be replaced with other, more relevant ones.
  • Build persistent pairs into policy, process, and practice. Some pairs frame the core identity of an organization. These should be embedded in the organizational culture through policies, practices, and processes. When patterns at all scales of the system incorporate the significant differences represented in the Interdependent Pairs, they become habitual.
  • Continue the Adaptive Action cycle. You can neither predict nor control how the system will respond to one of your choices. You may think you are moving the system toward greater stability, while you may, in fact, be pushing it to the brink of change. That is why every NOW WHAT? is followed immediately by the next WHAT? For effective leaders, every decision is made in the spirit of inquiry and Adaptive Action.

For us in HSD, questions around the Interdependent Pairs work as a kind of operating system. Will this decision influence our relationships across generations? What effect will it have on the integration of praxis? What difference will it make for those inside and outside our immediate circle? In a moment, the important implications of a decision can be identified and analysed.

Our Interdependent Pairs influence many decisions, both large and small. For example, in the mediation across generations, we are convening young professionals across our network to inform our next cycles of product and service delivery. To bring theory and practice into closer connection, we have reframed our training, coaching, and consulting offerings as Adaptive Action Labs. In these labs, clients will integrate theory and practice as they address their own most sticky issues. Finally, we are revamping our website and developing a social media strategy to reach out to those who might choose to move closer into our community of HSD Professionals. At risk of stating the obvious, the social media strategy should also affect the generations and praxis pairs.

So leadership ain’t what it used to be. It is a continuous process of seeing tensions inside and outside the organisation that influence success, creating a solution space out of those tensions, and using that framework to inform operational and strategic decisions. As I consider the stand-out leaders of today, I suspect they are masters of seeing significant differences and navigating the creative space between and among them. You can, too. What are the tensions that shape your leadership decisions? What benefit do you gain by making them explicit as Interdependent Pairs?

Glenda Eoyang is Founding Executive Director of the Human Systems Dynamics Institute.