We Live in Complex Times

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

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


Life just seems to get more complex every day. From the ever-changing geo-political landscape to the introduction of new varieties of cereal every time I go to the store!

So what is complexity? It’s not just something that’s more complicated. Specifically, a complex system is one in which there isn’t one clear right answer, things are unpredictable, small actions can have big impacts, cause and effect aren’t clearly linked and there’s a lot that’s unknowable. (See Dave Snowden’s HBR article.) 

The challenges we face as leaders today place us squarely in the domain of complexity. Not a very comfortable domain!

What does that ask of us?

  • We need to pause, slow down just as we feel the need to jump in and fix things quickly. Taking time to sense more deeply what’s happening generally pays off big in a complex system. (See “The Meltdown That Didn’t Happen” for a great example of this.)
  • It’s often best to take small actions (safe to fail experiments) even though it feels like a full scale overhaul is what’s needed.  (See “Why The Best Plan Might Not Be a Good One”)
  • It’s super helpful to pay attention to our own inner state. Settle your mind. Even (maybe especially!) when the situation in the outside world seems dire.

Each of these things can feel counter-intuitive. And yet each creates a space where things are more likely to unfold in ways that are positive and sustainable. For more ideas, see Doug Silsbee’s blog series “Presence in Complexity.” 

If you want to stick your toe in the water with some of these ideas for leading in complexity, here’s an easy way to try it out. A safe to fail experiment you can do. Next time things look messy, just pause. Check in with yourself. Settle, center, breathe. Now look for subtle information in the environment that you may have missed. From this settled and more informed place, decide what needs to be done.

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