Leading in Complexity – so what?


March 20th, 2017

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Leadership ain’t what it used to be. The image of a great white man at the top of the pyramid is, we can only hope, gone forever. The question now is “What will take the place of that image?” What is leadership in a world of open boundaries, multiple differences, and massive interdependencies? Consider the icons of twenty-first century management: Tony Hsieh of Zappos; Jeff Omidyar of EBAY; Sheryl Sandberg of Facebook; and Lucy Peng of Alibaba. Each is successful, and each is unique. What is the secret of their success?

We know that human systems self-organise to respond to conditions as they change. Boundaries emerge and dissolve as services are outsourced, work goes virtual, and companies merge. Tensions build and resolve inside and outside organisations as differences in resources, needs, and perspectives drive change. Connections are made and broken as technology, communications, and partnerships adapt to changing conditions. Successful systems adapt to exploit changes in their internal and external environments. The leader is “in charge,” but what does that mean in today’s chaotic economic, political, and technological environments?

We believe the role of the leader is to set conditions for others to succeed. Success includes lots of different patterns: productivity, sustainability, health, efficiency, effectiveness, engagement, and maybe even happiness. Any leader, at any level, holds the responsibility to see, understand, and influence these patterns, so individuals, teams, organizations, and communities can succeed and thrive.

This may be an innovative and powerful description of leadership, however, in human systems dynamics (HSD), we never stop at the description. We reach beyond understanding to explore options for action. So what does it mean to set conditions for success in times of dynamical change? What is the Adaptive Action that sets conditions for success? Adaptive Action is an interactive, three-step process that asks three questions. WHAT are the patterns in the current moment? SO WHAT tensions and possibilities are locked inside those patterns? NOW WHAT can you do to shift the conditions and leverage the power in the patterns? A leader uses this simple process to set conditions for success.


What are the differences that make a difference to our success at this particular place, time, situation?

This question is the essence of competitive advantage. The answers vary over industry, organisation, time, technology, and market conditions. Global currency markets, supply chains, educational systems, demographic, and many other factors influence how a leader answers this question.

As the leader of HSD Institute today, as I consider our collective future, I am focusing on three fundamental differences that make a difference to our success:  Generations, praxis, and relationship.

  • We are concerned about communication across generations because our core community is moving into later life. Our worldviews developed in and belong to another time, while our younger colleagues will create the future. We need to understand how Millennials and Gen-Xers see, understand, and influence patterns in their human systems.
  • Praxis is the balance that we strive for between theory and practice. In earlier stages of the development of HSD as a field, we acknowledged the relationship between the two. At the same time, we organized our institutional work to deal with the two separately. This separation allowed us to align with the perspective held by the rest of the world. For a successful future, we need to take the praxis of our day-to-day work into the design of our products, services, and organization.
  • Relationships are always important, but one facet is drawing our attention now. Some parts of our community are tightly connected to the Institute, staff, and core work of HSD. Others are more removed, and still others who should be connected are outside the sphere of our connection and communication.

In my leadership decisions these days, I am focusing on these three differences. Earlier in our history, other things were primary: Consistency, quality, geography, medium, and audience were important. My special role in the community was, for a time, a difference that made a difference to the evolution of our success. Over time, as conditions shifted and the organisation became more mature, my attention has shifted to this set of three differences that inform action today to shape our success tomorrow. The old differences don’t go away; they become part of the practice and habits, while the new ones invite innovation and change.

So what?

So what potential options for action exist in the space that is defined by these significant differences?

Identifying the significant differences is just the first step in the leadership journey. The second step is to explore options for action that lie between the extremes of each one. This step is driven by what we call Interdependent Pairs. A single pair frames the problem/solution space in terms of two extremes. Barry Johnson calls these polarities.[1] They also appear as dilemmas, paradoxes, or dichotomies. We call them Interdependent Pairs because they never appear alone. Each dilemma is connected to others. As a group, multiple pairs influence the landscape within which a leader makes key decisions.

I understand my current leadership challenges in terms of three Interdependent Pairs:

Identifying two extremes within the differences helps me see a range of options for each. It opens up and makes much more concrete the choices that I can make for myself and for the organization.

This SO WHAT? also helps me see how the pairs influence each other. For example, we expect Millennials to be much more practice oriented than earlier generations. Given the average community, they sometimes feel excluded and move to the outside edges of the network. Many insiders are Baby Boomers, and most of them understand our commitment to the integration of theory and practice. We have no way to gauge the preferences or practices of individuals and organizations outside of our immediate circle.

This process doesn’t tell me what to do to help us be successful, but it does frame the question in terms of potential actions, which we’ll explore in my next blog post.


Glenda Eoyang is Founding Executive Director of the Human Systems Dynamics Institute.  Together with Griff Griffiths, she is back at Roffey Park in December to run the HSD Certificate

More details including booking information available here.



[1] Johnson, B. (1992). Polarity Management: Identifying and Managing Unsolvable Problems. Middleville, MI: HRD Press.