OK. Picture this. You go to a workshop about leading in complexity. On the first afternoon, you find yourself and 5 colleagues in a pen with 6 goats. Your job is to organize them into specific pairs with some distance between the pairs. And by the way, you can’t touch the goats.
That’s what happened to me last month. Now consider the leader wanting the organization to change its way of working. The leader may
- Be too close to the action to see the whole picture. (None of us really had a balcony view of the whole goat pen.)
- Get frustrated that no one seems to be listening to requests for change. (Our goats certainly weren’t listening.)
- Set a goal and expect reality to line up with it. (Try that with goats!)
You’re probably familiar with the idea that the world is increasingly VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous). And you live the challenges of leading in that environment every day. Much of the research and advice for leading in complexity suggests how to shift the organization – safe to fail experiments, adaptive planning, amplifying weak signals, etc.
In my work with executives (and more recently with goats), it has become clear to me both that these strategies are important AND that by themselves, they aren’t enough. Necessary but not sufficient. We must also work differently with ourselves.
Here’s one example. When an organization wholeheartedly adopts safe to fail experiments, we expect about an 80% “failure” rate. It’s easy to tell your team you expect this and perhaps even to give them the time for all these experiments. But not so easy to be the leader who can personally embrace an experience of 4 out of 5 projects failing. You got where you are today by making projects successful. You’ve built an identity around that success. You like being successful. For many leaders, just using the word “failure” triggers an uncomfortable state.
To lead safe to fail experiments successfully, the leader needs to lean into the discomfort of having her identity of “successful at completing projects” disrupted. She needs to learn to tolerate the uneasy or wobbly feeling we get when our unconscious assumptions, beliefs and identities become conscious and then the even greater discomfort when we begin to change those habitual ways of seeing ourselves and the world. In other words, the strategies we use to intervene in a complex system may challenge how we are being.
We saw this with the goats. For example, some of us got triggered by “failed experiments” when we tried to get two goats to come together and they didn’t cooperate. That triggered state produced agitation. That made the goats too active to organize at all! When we settled ourselves using a simple centering practice, the goats got more manageable. Well, somewhat more manageable anyway…
Yes, the world is changing rapidly – we all live and work in incredibly complex systems. And it turns out that a big part of what’s VUCA isn’t “the world” – it’s inside US! To lead the goats, I’ve got to lead myself differently. To lead in complexity we need to do the messy work around who we are as leaders and how we show up. Our world urgently needs all of us to step up to these challenges.
For more on building leadership for complexity, this article is a great start.
If you’re interested in strengthening your ability to lead in complexity, let’s talk. That’s what my coaching is all about. I’d be delighted to have a discovery conversation about your situation at no cost to you.