Ferraris are complicated. Rainforests are complex.

We see in order to move. We move in order to see.

Those words from William Gibson profoundly capture one of the leadership challenges of our time. In order for an organisation to thrive (or a single person for that matter) we need to balance observation with action. When the leaders that we work with take time to observe the world around them, what they see is captured by a single word: complexity. 

In the second part of this blog I will explore three reasons why complexity is such an important topic at this moment. To begin with, however, we are going to spend some time reviewing what I mean by complexity and why it matters. The word complexity has been in management literature since at least the 1990s. However, it is often used as a catchall term to describe things that are hard to learn or understand, complicated or challenging, or require specialist knowledge and experience. None of these do complexity justice. Looked at through a particular lens, complexity asks us to think of problems from new perspectives and generate entirely new kinds of solutions.

 Ferraris are complicated. Rainforests are complex

However, there is one way of thinking about that is at the heart of our biggest leadership challenges. Dave Snowden (complexity thinker and originator of the Cynefin framework) differentiated between complicated challenges and complex ones by contrasting a Ferarri with the Amazon Rainforest.

rainforest waterfall.jpg

Ferraris are complicated machines, but an expert mechanic can take one apart and reassemble it without changing a thing. The car is static, and the whole is the sum of its parts. The rainforest, on the other hand, is in constant flux—a species becomes extinct, weather patterns change, an agricultural project reroutes a water source—and the whole is far more than the sum of its parts.

 Entangled mega-trends

 It is in the relationships between multiple changing and evolving systems that complexity really emerges. This is no better demonstrated than by the inter-connected megatrends of exponential technological growth, climate change, population shifts (both in terms of demographic shifts and physical movement). Their interconnectedness is much more akin to the living systems of a rainforest than the mechanical parts of the Ferrari. Together, these interrelated trends have profound implications, as described by Thomas Friedman in Thank You for Being Late:

 The three largest forces on the planet – technology, globalisation and climate change – are all accelerating at once. As a result, so many aspects of our societies, workplaces and geopolitics are being reshaped and need to be reimagined.

The need for re-imagination

 Common amongst complex challenges is that they have no boundaries: one country making massive strides in environmentally sustainability cannot halt climate change. They also transcend the traditional boundaries of business, government and civil society. They exist across contexts. Governments alone, for example, cannot prepare populations for the future of work. They have no single ‘answer’ or solution and can’t be solved by replicating what worked in the past. Friedman’s use of the word “reimagined” is particularly pertinent: improvement and efficiency themselves are not enough. Lastly, they limit the powers of prediction and analysis limited. In the words of Snowden and Boone again:

The system has a history, and the past is integrated with the present; the elements evolve with one another and with the environment; and evolution is irreversible.

Though a complex system may, in retrospect, appear to be ordered and predictable, hindsight does not lead to foresight because the external conditions and systems constantly change.

Complexity is everywhere

It isn’t just the defining challenges of our time that are complex. A world with global trading relationships, flows of people and products, accelerating technological and climate change, createsmyriad complex problems. Leaders in the public and private sectors are grappling with issues that arise from the interrelationship between these factors. Here are some of the questions that our clients have asked themselves over the past year (with client confidentiality protected, of course):

  1. How do we develop business models to suit technologies that are not yet ubiquitous?

  2. How do we reorient our organisation to a social purpose whilst still succeeding financially

  3. How do we tell a credible story to our young professionals whose long-term future prospects are, at best, ill defined?

  4. How do we balance stability and innovation in an environment undergoing disruption?

Approaches to these kinds of problem are multi-facetted. They involve developing strategic experiments over certainty. They require an admission of uncertainty, an acceptance of not knowing and a willingness to share that with people who ordinarily expect you to “know stuff”. They involve, at their core, a willingness to accept unpredictability, not in a superficial way, but an appreciative one. By appreciative, I mean that this unpredictability is something to be explored and the decisions and experiments that arise from that exploration to be learnt from, rather than being something to fear or fight against.   

Complexity is not new. Nor is the complexity thinking described above. So why is it so important now? What follows is a short exploration of three amongst many reasons.

Humanity’s digital dilemma  

The exponential growth in computing power and, in particular the growing capability of artificial intelligence is creating levels of disruption for which many industries were unprepared and the future of which defies accurate prediction. Many (if not most) organisations feel they are playing catch-up. But really, this is only the technical aspect of the challenge. The complexity is multiplied by the human implications of technology. If nearly 50% of jobs are automatable, how will organisations create work for humans? What will the battle for our attention do to our capacity for deep thinking? How can we enable people to use algorithms to make decisions rather than be used by them? Neuroscientist Adam Gazzaley (writing here) argues that the consequences of a mismatch between our ‘old’ brain and new technologies constitute a growing ‘cognition crisis’. In his words:

 We are seeing accelerating reward cycles associated with intolerance to delayed gratification and sustained attention; excessive information exposure connected with stress, depression, and anxiety (e.g., fear of missing out and being non-productive); and, of course, multitasking has been linked to safety issues (such as texting while driving) and a lack of focus (which impacts our relationships, our studies, and our work).

 There is a complex interplay between the technological, psychological and societal impacts of ubiquitous digital technology. Humanity’s digital dilemma calls for leaders who can balance the needs of their organisations and society more general, who are willing to experiment genuinely and who are willing to explore what they don’t yet know rather than stay in the relative safety of the known. 

A plague of ‘fake simplicity’

 We are witnessing in public life an unwillingness to acknowledge complexity – too often, issues of concern are reduced to slogans and political decisions are sold as ‘solutions’: in the US and UK we could probably repeat these in our sleep: “take back control”; “build a wall”; “lock her up”. But this plague has spread far and wide. Viktor Orban in Hungary demonstrates perfectly what it is like to live in a world without nuance, quoted in the Guardian in 2016 saying “for us migration is not a solution but a problem ... not medicine but a poison, we don’t need it and won’t swallow it”. Whether leaders like him really see the world this simplistically (or just want other people to) is a discussion for another time. What is concerning is the consequence: fake simplicity will never produce solutions to complex challenges. Jair Bolsonaro, the newly elected Brazilian president, is known for his inflammatory rhetoric but his underwhelming performance at the World Economic Forum this week suggests little of substance behind his slogans. If leaders can’t accept or talk about complexity we are destined to fail to rise to the challenges we are presented with. Here is Friedman again, with a warning to his New York Times readers: 

This is what happens to a country that falls for hucksters who think that life can just imitate Twitter — that there are simple answers to hard questions — and that small men can rearrange big complex systems by just erecting a wall and everything will be peachy.

Under-prepared organisations

The organisations that we work with are full of capable, intelligent, creative leaders. However, almost all of them feel frustrated that the balance of their time is spent on the immediate and short-term priorities. Of course there are opportunities for truly strategic conversations and future focus but these are too few and often too short. The kind of thinking that complexity calls for cannot be ‘switched on’ in an instant. The kind of exploration that one needs to do can’t be done between meetings or, worse still, during meetings. The kind of experimentation that needs to be undertaken needs time and resources but all too often gets deprioritised by deadlines and targets. This is not to say that any of what gets in the way is unimportant. It is more that, by sacrificing the biggest challenges for the most immediate ones, leaders lose the opportunity to be disruptors and run the risk of being disrupted.

Gavin Weeks

Storytelling in the 4th Industrial Revolution

As PowerPoint celebrates its 30-year anniversary, it occurred to me how immured we are by its impact in organisations. The ability to bulletise even the most complex ideas has changed the way ideas are transferred and using a PowerPoint deck to communicate everything of importance within an organisation represents the nadir of human connection. PowerPoint provides the illusion of engagement. Less-is-more is the mantra regarding a PowerPoint deck but invariably less becomes less.

A story with universal themes, Harry Potter by J. K. Rowling is the best-selling book series in history.

A story with universal themes, Harry Potter by J. K. Rowling is the best-selling book series in history.

I had a manager once who was exacting and thoughtful and just the right amount of demanding, which were all wonderful characteristics of a leader. We thrived under his leadership. But he did have one annoying characteristic and that was to ask that any proposal we put together for him be written in a document, rather than a PowerPoint deck. Our recently acquired, and now wired-in behaviour, to summarise our arguments and proposals into a set of PowerPoint slides, felt much more efficient than the long-winded and frankly tedious exercise of actually thinking and then putting those thoughts into prose. 

While we all acknowledged that there was something rather wonderful about discussing an idea with real sentences as supporting material, it has taken me years to realise that what felt inefficient was in fact very effective. I still reference some of these documents and suspect that a PowerPoint deck would be much more difficult to understand without the accompanying context.

Last week I had the joy of facilitating an afternoon with a group of HR leaders who are actively engaged in improving the use of storytelling in their business. What struck me about the afternoon was just how engaging and energising it is to communicate using stories. How much richer our organisations would be if the confidence of assembling a PowerPoint deck was replaced by a confidence in putting a compelling story together. 

Of course there is an inherent paradox in teaching people to tell stories—storytelling is one of the most human things we do. Everyone is a storyteller. In every culture, in every part of the world, people gather around in groups and tell stories. Stories affirm that our lives have meaning and that we are like other people. Humans have been telling stories for thousands of years, sharing them orally even before the invention of writing. In one way or another, much of people’s lives are spent telling stories—often about other people. Professor of Evolutionary Psychology, Robin Dunbar found that stories have evolutionary utility and that social topics, especially gossip, account for 65 per cent of all conversations in public places. 

Having only worked in organisations for 20 years, I am in no position to comment on a pre-PowerPoint world but my suspicion is that people had to work that bit harder to engage and influence without the back up of an interesting and often-entertaining slide. I think of the hours that I have spent in deep frustration beautifying slides when all that mind power could have gone into crafting a much more effective yarn. The good news is of course that the benefits of organisational storytelling are being increasingly recognised. Storytelling helps organisations unravel complexity by explaining the context and, crucially, the why. The same manager of the document fame used to say that ‘context is everything’. A good story helps to frame this context. Stories create a personal connection between the storyteller and listener that also allow the listener to imagine future possibilities. Stories really do make concepts and data more memorable. In short, people remember the stories that have been told rather than the slides they have been shown. 

The 4th Industrial Revolution (4IR) will require organisations to be even more human. Well-told stories will be at the heart of this. As we stand on the edge of this new technological revolution, everything that we know about the way we live, work, and relate to one another will change. Empathy, connection, creativity, cross-cultural understanding and collaboration will be at the core of what we will need to do to remain relevant (and happy). The thread that connects all of these capabilities—storytelling. Shared stories are a way for people to feel that they have a collective purpose, a coherent grasp of their world and a way to articulate universal meaning. 

I was recently introduced to the epic story of Gilgamesh, the world’s oldest story. The familiarity and universality of the story felt familiar but contextually different. And this is what sits at the heart of storytelling. The real reason that we tell stories again and again is because we want to be a part of a shared history—when what we know is unstable and how our world works erratic, stories that connect us to the most human of experiences provides an anchor point from which we can navigate all that the 4IR will throw our way.

Sam Rockey

Doing the right thing (even when no-one is watching)

There was an absolute tweet storm yesterday when the BBC’s gender pay gap was revealed. Two sides of the argument emerged: the first pointed out that the gender pay gap had been on the conversational table since 1946 and that there was no justifiable reason why women and men, in the same job, should be paid differently. 

Jane Garvey, the BBC radio presenter, wrote on Twitter “I’m looking forward to presenting BBC Woman’s Hour today. We’ll be discussing #genderpaygap. As we’ve done since 1946. Going well, isn’t it?”. The counter argument took a more individualised approach arguing that the likes of Gary Lineker deserved to be paid more because of his illustrious past- and current pulling power. In other words, things were more complex, harder to calibrate, less binary.

Tony Hall, Director-General of the BBC, describes his commitment to closing the gender pay gap at the BBC in the  Guardian  (19th July, 2017), after the salaries of anyone earning over £150,000 were made public.

Tony Hall, Director-General of the BBC, describes his commitment to closing the gender pay gap at the BBC in the Guardian (19th July, 2017), after the salaries of anyone earning over £150,000 were made public.

Either way the BBC came out of the day bruised. Tony Hall, Director-General of the BBC, went into damage control mode by stating that he felt “reinvigorated in one of the things I really believe, which is by getting by 2020 equality on the air between men and women and in pay as well”.
Doing the right thing for the wrong reason
A more cynical person than I might ask whether he would have come out so strongly if the BBC hadn’t had to share this data? Newspapers are littered with articles about companies who do the right thing only AFTER they have been exposed for doing the wrong thing. The fear of getting caught surely shouldn’t be the motivator for being fair to employees, for treating consumers well, for being conscious of the environmental damage that can be done and by looking at a contribution beyond what is expected by shareholders?
An organisational conscience
An organisational conscience should be driving the right decisions even if there is little chance that any special kudos follows. But what is an organisational conscience? Are there some people in an organisation that have a greater conscience than others? How do leaders nurture and build an organisational conscience to do the right thing? Of course, we all have different versions of what the right thing is but at the heart of the right thing might be something along the lines of fairness and equality, of inclusion rather than exclusion, of doing no harm to consumers, to the environment, to employees, and in this case, to women.
An organisational conscience certainly doesn’t evolve fully formed.
As the wonderful Rebecca Solnit describes it :
“Hope locates itself in the premise that we don’t know what will happen and that in the spaciousness of uncertainty is room to act...It’s the belief that what we do matters even though how and when it may matter, who and what it may impact, are not things we can know beforehand. We may not, in fact, know them afterward either, but they matter all the same.”
Being an adult
The most troubling part of being an adult in the world is the realisation of the fact that there is no one person in charge who will do the right thing, make the right decisions, lead the world into the right place. It is up to all of us in small and large ways. Organisations need to design in ‘conscience building’—design in ways to check and then check again so that institutions like the beloved BBC don’t end up being recognised for one thing: saying the right things, only when they were caught out doing the wrong thing.
Sam Rockey