What is a leader’s job in complex situations?
Hint – it’s not all about results!
As leaders, we often identify our role in terms of the results we are responsible for. And yet there is a second aspect of your role in complex situations that is just as important to focus on – creating the conditions that foster the emergence of your desired outcomes. Yeah, that’s a lot harder to get your arms around than the results. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t matter.
In complex systems, it’s hard to engineer a specific result because we can’t predict cause and effect. Sometimes we look back and think, “Oh, I should have been able to predict what happened.” But until it unfolded, that outcome was not predictable. We can, however, see patterns. We can observe the conditions that are more likely to lead to the outcomes we seek. And then we can “nudge” those conditions. We can amplify the patterns that seem to support success and dampen the things that hold the organization back.
Organizational culture gives us a good example of this. Culture isn’t an outcome, it’s a set of conditions that either support or hinder success. For example, if your culture includes valuing learning and risk taking, you’re likely to get more innovative solutions to problems. The culture of valuing learning is a condition that encourages an outcome of innovation. Or if your culture includes a blaming and complaining mentality, that is a condition that hinders an outcome of collaboration.
Even “soft” outcomes like innovation and collaboration are easier to measure or address than the conditions of how we treat each other. But those conditions (among many others) are the “soup” from which our results are born. (If you want to geek out about this, check out this post from Dave Snowden.)
Another example is the physical work environment. Older offices were organized around linear access and segmented space. For the past decade or so, new office spaces are generally more open with lots of shared space for staff to work. Parts of these offices look more like a coffee shop than an old-style office area. This design lends itself to more informal communication and thus collaboration. Other examples of conditions might include the tools and support available, the kinds of meetings that are regularly held and who is invited, what leadership acknowledges or ignores, etc. (See this reflection on architecture and mood.)
Take a look at how you and your team focus your attention. Is it all about results and outcomes? Or are you also looking at how to create the conditions that foster the outcomes you want to achieve? If you can balance these two, you’ll be more likely to achieve your outcomes.