Leadership Imperatives for Complexity #1

Photo credit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/dominik99/ Creative commons license

Photo credit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/dominik99/ Creative commons license


Does this sound like your world?

·      Changes are coming at you at an ever increasing pace.

·      Your solid problem solving skills sometimes don’t seem to work so well.

·      Just when you think you’ve go things figured out, the situation changes.

These are characteristics of complex challenges. Complex challenges behave differently than things that are “merely complicated.” And they require a different sort of leadership. In this series of posts, I want to outline the leadership imperatives for leading in situations that are more complex than complicated.

Let’s begin the series with the most foundational imperative.


Learning to see the distinctions between complicated and complex is the first step. When we tackle complex challenges with tools appropriate for complicated problems (e.g. trend analysis, process mapping, strategic planning), it just doesn’t work. And it sometimes makes things worse! If we use complexity appropriate tools on a complicated problem, we make things messier than necessary and people get overwhelmed. We’ve got to discern what is complex and what is complicated. This distinction can't be reduced to a simple formula, but neither does it have to be "you'll know it when you see it."

Here are a few things to ask yourself about your situation.

·      Does it seem that you can’t accomplish what you want to without paying serious attention to adjacent issues or surrounding problems? With complex challenges, it’s often impossible to solve the problem in isolation from other issues. But in a complicated issue, you can often make good progress by focusing on a specific issue or aspect of the problem.

·      Do you feel confident that you can identify and begin to understand all of the significant components of this issue? If you can, your issue is likely more complicated than complex. In a complex issue you will often find that you can't even figure out what all the pieces of the puzzle are, let alone how they fit together.

·      Do your well-intentioned solutions often seem to create perverse outcomes? In complexity even well thought out solutions can have wildly unpredictable results. Complicated problems behave in more predictable ways.

Another source of information for distinguishing complexity from complicated is your own reactions. Notice your own responses to the situation.

·      Do you feel stressed by something more than the sheer volume of work to be done? If so, you may be dealing with a complex challenge; your brain may be a bit overwhelmed by all of the unknowns.

·      Does it seem like your well-honed analytical problem-solving skills are failing you? Complex challenges often don’t yield to analysis and best practices.

·      Are you or your team or experiencing "change fatigue?" That may be a sign that you are using complicated tools and processes in an attempt to solve complex challenges. Multiple re-orgs, process re-designs etc. can leave your team exhausted and make little difference in a complex situation.

This first leadership imperative invites you to get real.  Learn enough about complexity to know when that's what you're looking at. Here are two excellent resources.

Dave Snowden has an 8 minute video about these distinctions. (Cynefin Framework, Learn More)

Doug Silsbee’s short paper offers more detail about these distinctions at three levels of the system: context, identity and soma.

So what should you do?

If you see that some aspects of your situation are in fact complex not complicated, pause. The most important thing you can do is to take a step back and try to get a different understanding of the situation before you proceed.

In the next post, we’ll talk about the next leadership imperative.


If you’d like to learn more about navigating in complexity, let’s talk.