Entanglements and Obsolete Loyalties


“We stick to the wrong thing quite often, not because it will come to fruition by further effort, but because we cannot let go of the way we have decided to tell the story” 

David Whyte,  Consolations

Despite good intentions, there are habits that hold us back.  Organisations can get tangled up in ways of doing things, in established systems, norms, traditions and ideas that stall progress ‘because that is the way things get done around here.’  Like Gulliver in ‘Gulliver’s Travels’, their leaders too can find themselves pinned down on the shoreline by the numerous small ties that bind. These, often invisible, ties are too rarely examined or challenged as they are part of day to day habits and ways of working that get taken for granted.

Seeing the System

What to do?  Ron Heifitz exhorted leaders to ‘get on the balcony’, to stand above the fray in order to identify new patterns as they emerge and to be able to squint out at the horizon.  This perspective-taking involves deliberately stepping out of the maelstrom of the everyday.  It requires getting some perspective to see where moribund systems need disruption in society, in our organisations and in ourselves. The act of ‘getting on the balcony’ takes courage. Once a leader has observed a compromised system with a detached and cool eye, that system cannot be unseen. The entanglements observed and the obsolete loyalties recognized become the basis for a clarion call for action.  Generative leaders are unafraid of disrupting their own systems, even those that feel precious, in order to unlock a productive future. 

Articulating the Territory

Such a disruptive perspective was famously illustrated by Rutger Bregman, the Dutch historian, who shifted the conversation at Davos into a more productive space by articulating the systemic challenges at play.  “What Bregman said, put simply, was the Davos emperors have no clothes. They talk a lot about how something must be done about inequality and the need to address social unrest, but cavil at the idea they might be a big part of the problem.He told his audience that people in Davos talked about participation, justice, equality and transparency, but “nobody raises the issue of tax avoidance and the rich not paying their share. It is like going to a firefighters’ conference and not talking about water.” (the Guardian, February 2019)

Stepping out of the Box

External ties may hold us hostage to the present but many leaders also maintain precious internal loyalties to ideas of themselves formed long ago that no longer serve. Much of what we do was decided by the person we were years ago.  That data is often inadequate for the context of leadership and requires a deliberate re-examination. We see the vulnerability and openness that such bold steps require in the most exciting, generative leaders we meet as they think about the future. 


On our programmes we use dynamic mapping that draws from Constellation practice. This mapping allows systemic blocks to surface as well as organisational stresses and unhelpful dynamics to be witnessed.  Here the leader gets a chance literally to step outside the system and observe how those operating within it experience its dynamics. Those representing the different components of the dynamic system can describe what it feels like to be part of the system – drawing on a new data set that goes beyond the limited, so-called objective descriptions so beloved by organisations. (flow charts, project plans, organograms, reporting lines etc).


We work at a deep level with people’s engrained ideas of themselves, seen alongside detailed developmental feedback from peers and faculty during the course of a programme. We use tightly designed small group processes to allow people to inhabit the gap that this work can throw up.What loyalties to old ideas of themselves can people leave behind? How might they find the confidence, with help from the group, to step into an even more generative way of leading?

Tracey Camilleri

New Scarcities: leadership time and focus

Guided by local Lisbon artist, Xico Gaivota, leaders picking up micro plastics on an otherwise pristine beach.

Leader as time lord

The most effective leaders we encounter budget their leadership time and attention deliberately. They treat them similarly to the other scarce resources most beloved of economists: money, natural and human capital. These leaders appear to have time on their side in the same way that great tennis players look relaxed at the net or actors seem to wait centre stage, unhurried, for the words of their soliloquies.

How do they do it? They prioritise ruthlessly, they say ‘no’, they delegate wisely and still they can make time to be human, to learn, to reflect and to listen. They are Time Lords, designing, budgeting and allocating precious resources in order to lead more efficiently and effectively: they literally make time.

Leader as conductor

These leaders also understand that all time is not the same. They know when to schedule an important meeting to take advantage of maximum energies (certainly not after lunch on a Friday). They do not have back to back meetings: they leave ten minutes for reflection, to draft a note, to have a coffee, to collect thoughts. They also understand rhythm: projects need proper beginnings and endings, weeks need highs amidst lows, breaks as well as sprints, reflection and action.

A leader holds the baton and can influence the rhythm of days and weeks. ‘How we spend our days’, says the writer Annie Dillard, ‘Is how we spend our lives’.

Leader as activist

Leadership focus is another contested area, everyone wants a slice of it. The urgencies of the day-to-day can muffle the sound of an important voice at the edge, or the view of a hand in the crowd, not waving but drowning. Leaders can quite quickly move from being purposeful activists to quotidian re-activists if they don’t treat their focus and attention as another scarce resource. The comforting demands of mastery (often confused with leadership) and management can bring about the wilful blindness – and deafness – seen here in our colleague

Margaret Heffernan's Ted Talk . Activist leaders need to be able both to zoom in close and zoom out with a wide lens as detailed in this Deloitte Study. This is ‘both/and’ leadership, not the ‘either or’ kind.

In practice:

Our most recent programme designed for the Ariane de Rothschild Legacy Fellows was held in Lisbon, Portugal.

Leadership time

Given their predilections, leaders generally love to take on the new. They resist stopping things or deliberately jettisoning the old and obsolete. Yet without this clearing-out process they can get stuck with a crippling idea of time as an infinite resource, endlessly adding on layer after layer of commitment. We meet many exhausted leaders. The simple act of giving leaders blank timetables from the past week and an invitation for them to reflect on how productively they allocate their time can bring about a valuable shift.

Leadership attention

We worked with an inspiring local artist Xico Gaivota in Portugal who creates art work from plastic picked up from the shore. He took a group of leaders to a seemingly pristine beach in Portugal, gave out huge bags and asked them to pick up the litter. Initially bewildered, they soon saw, by looking close, that the beach was covered in micro-plastics. Before long the bags were full. This short exercise gave rise to horizon-scanning conversations about how everyone was implicated in this scene and the leadership questions it raised.

Human Learning versus Machine Learning

Golden Gate Bridge

Golden Gate Bridge

Online learning, digital learning, virtual learning, AI led learning platforms - there is an ever increasing focus on how learning can be done just between the learner and the machine. But this kind of learning, while it has its place, is not a replacement for a different kind of human learning. Learning that takes into account context, conversation, meaningful engagement. This series of short blogs explores why human to human learning is so important and why somewhat counterintuitively, it is also deeply efficient.

I’ll start with the importance of context. We have just finished running a programme in San Francisco where we agonised over the ‘where’ as well as the what’. Why does the quality of space for learning matter to us? Why won’t a hotel conference room do?

Here are five ways in which place plumps up learning (if you’re a human).

Space for Reflection

Islands are good. Woods are good too we found for reflection. In fact, Muir Woods, outside San Francisco, with its redwood cathedrals mandates silence. ‘Enter quietly’, the sign says. We were there in the rain a few weeks ago, dusty off the plane. The young female ranger was glad about the rain ‘because the woods are at their best – smell them!’. During the week, we made the most of the corners of San Francisco that encourage reflection. In the interstices of the programme we made space for it with ‘walkshops’, socratic wanderings in pairs that made room for people to tussle with new questions, walking over the bridge for example and on the ferry past Alcatraz (we’re saving that for next time…).

In his book ‘Consolations’ the poet David Whyte talks about how silence ‘orphans us from certainty’. Most real learning needs people to step into uncertainty and away from the noise.

Space for Creativity

Oddly, a wooden cabin can be just the thing. In his book, ‘How Buildings Learn’ Stewart Brand remarks ‘An important aspect of design is the degree to which an object invites you into its own completion. Some work invites you into itself by not offering a finished, glossy, one-reading only surface.’ It’s the very lack of beauty and polish here that allows people to cover the walls with half-finished ideas, pin up work in progress and generally make the mess that leads to creativity. Leather and glass just don’t cut it.

Space as Imagery

Many people remember through images rather than words or numbers, yet words and numbers dominate in most business situations. As Mark Twain said, ‘figures are monotonously unstriking in appearance, and they don't take hold, they form no pictures, and so they give the eye no chance to help. Pictures are the thing. Pictures can make dates stick. They can make nearly anything stick--particularly IF YOU MAKE THE PICTURES YOURSELF.’ So, to get away from the urgencies of the office to think about the future and to do it at the top of the Salesforce building – the tallest in San Francisco - as we did, early in the morning makes pictures. The view out over the city is breath-taking, vertigo-inducing. It’s the kind of image you file away in your memory. Equally, a log cabin can provide much more than a kitsch, backwoodsy vibe if you are thinking about culture, about home. The point is that ideas of the day are remembered viscerally as experiences not concepts. Moreover, there are inevitably photos to show the team back home and images around which to have new conversations. Thus the ideas swim out.

Space for Group Forming

Learning experiences that aim to build trust amongst peer groups need a robust container. Small spaces can work well. Round tables are good, fires, family style dinners, mess that can stay through the week and not be cleared up. It’s best though to guard against leaky vessels, like hotel breakfast rooms, huge teaching rooms with lots of tech, course ipads, piped music or baggy city ‘tours’, where you can feel any gathered intimacy leach out into the atmosphere.

Oxford colleges with their closed, grassed quads, cloisters, wood panelled walls, stone faces and discoverable gardens serve the purpose well. It may be something about the acoustics and the smell of the stone.

Space for Ideas

You can’t talk about strategy in a basement. Once I had to do that for three days on the trot and it doesn’t work. Strategic thinking needs light and perspective and the ability to walk away and come back to it. You can’t learn from each other in a banked lecture theatre – they have their place but, truthfully, we never use them. Good coffee is a strategic tool. You can’t have a risky conversation if your legs are hidden under tables. Circles of chairs make people (understandably) nervous. We do them but not in a hushed way. Ethicists we’ve found tend to need big rooms to talk in otherwise people feel scrutinised up against the walls. You can’t really have more than 12 (think disciples, think juries) if you want a single conversation – over that and it splits into two. Every conversation needs to be designed and set according to the ideas: that goes for every meeting on every day.

I think robots and algorithms would be fairly agnostic about all that.

Tracey Camilleri

Impostor Syndrome – The ‘over-achiever’s’ curse

The world may observe academic success of a high degree and may find it hard to believe in the very real distress of the individual concerned, who feels ‘phony’ the more he or she is successful (Winnicot, 1965).


Isn’t it strange how the more successful over-achievers become, the more they believe deep-down that their success is a mere factor of luck rather than genuine talent and hard-work? One can’t help but miss the paradox of the fact that the more the world acknowledges success, the more the over-achiever doubts its authenticity: the highs and lows of the ‘Impostor Syndrome’.

Almost forty years ago, two clinical psychologists, Clance & Imes, conducted research into ‘neurotic imposture’, attempting to understand why high achieving women, who achieved against all odds, couldn’t internalise and ‘own’ their success, and the talent and hard-work that went beneath achieving it. While early research on perceived fraudulence was focused on women, recent research indicates that not only do men suffer from the same syndrome, but male ‘imposters’ experience greater anxiety and perform worse under conditions of high accountability and negative feedback than their female counterpart.

A problem with perception

The perceived fraudulence experienced by ‘impostors’ has both cognitive and affective components which negatively affect self-perception and identity - in the ‘impostor’s’ ‘inner worlds’ they experience the subjective ‘belief’ of being fraudulent and suffer from fear of being exposed for not having the talents and skills that their achievements suggest. While real impostors deliberately base their identities on pretence and masquerade, ‘neurotic impostors’ or ‘over-achiever impostors’, who are genuinely more successful in their fields than their peers, simply feel as if they’re sailing under false colours and could be ‘caught out’ at any moment. This results in a disjuncture of identity, a lack of identity integrity, which in a vicious circle, fuels and bolsters the lack of confidence that underlies the ‘impostor syndrome’.

The process of distortion

Clance & Imes were not specific about the underlying reasons for a ‘neurotic impostor’s’ failure to internalise success but suggest that a process of distortion is at play whereby all forms of success are attributed to external sources as opposed to internal sources such as intellect, talent or skill. Factors outside themselves, such as luck, timing or popularity and appearance, specifically in the case of women, account for their success rather than talent and skill. Individuals who have a sense of ’imposturism’ report higher anxiety levels, lower self-confidence, higher incidence of depression, and a frustration to meet the high standards of perfection they set for themselves. In an investigation of a sample of Yale students in the early 1990’s it was found that ‘perceived fraudulence’ or what is now referred to as an ‘impostor syndrome’, involves a complex interplay of depressive tendencies, self-criticism, high social anxiety and self-monitoring skills, and excessive pressures to excel and achieve.

Clance & Imes found that the ‘Impostor sufferers’ affliction normally starts in childhood, and its cause typically falls into one of two groups with respect to their early family histories, particularly in terms of parental expectations. The first group has a sibling or close relative considered to be the ‘intelligent one’, and the impostor is labelled the ‘sensitive and socially adept one’, or a position inferior, particularly in intellect, to their sibling. In order to prove the family wrong, the impostor is driven to achieve, but when they do, unconsciously their success is attributed to their social charm, physical appearance or just plain luck and ‘good timing’.

The other group is affirmed by their family and made to feel superior in every way – intellect, personality, appearance, and talents and is regaled with numerous examples of how as a young child they demonstrated superiority. This pressure, real or perceived, to live up to parental expectations drives them, but given their excessively high standards, anxiety and self-doubt creeps in.

The effects of parental expectations and labelling in children was studied by Phillips who researched children with self-perceptions of incompetence and found that some of the most proficient students appear to be among those who are most vulnerable to performance debilitation and self-denigration. Phillips concluded that for children who are academically proficient, their proficiency may be a liability due to parental and teacher pressure and expectations resulting in performance anxiety, lower self-esteem, self-doubt and fear of failure and not living up to expectations.

Through a process of reflection and self-insight, the ‘impostor’ can develop an understanding of their excessive drive to succeed and deliver to demandingly high standards and also get to the root cause of their underlying lack of confidence and self-worth, which flies in the face of their achievements. By engaging in ‘identity work’, and authentically aligning their internal self-concept with their external, social concept, the one that is ‘seen’ and reflected back to them by the world, the ‘impostor’ can bolster their confidence and integrate their identities. An integrated identity comprises three elements:

• A strong self-concept indicating authentic self-esteem, levels of assertiveness and self-acceptance combined with a strength of character;

• A social internalisation of this self-concept with what the world sees; and

• A clear purpose.

‘Identity work’ is conducted through being given the opportunity to self-reflect, to discover ‘what’ and ‘who’ you are, and to discover what drives and inspires you. Self-reflective work should not be positioned as ‘fixing what is broken’, but rather forming a realistic and authentic base from which to grow and develop further. Through having an ‘integrated identity’ people who previously suffered from Impostor Syndrome will feel justified in occupying their positions in the world, confident in the value they have to add in leading themselves and others to their high standards of success and performance.

Dr. Kim Howard

Design your life - as YOU like it.

One of the most successful programmes at Stanford has the title Designing Your Life and affords the comforting notion that such things can in fact be done. The sense of agency and ambition that this notion brings is important for those at the threshold of their careers, particularly in the world of exponential choice and commensurate pressure that Stanford students no doubt experience. The act of standing back to re-evaluate the shape of life and work is also necessary at other moments of transition: for individuals, for their organisations and for the health of society. At Thompson Harrison, we have been thinking over several years, not only about the need to design your work life but also about the difficulty of managing the transition between life stages both for employers and for employees.


In January I attended a talk by Teresa Martin-Retortillo from IE XL at the Merit Conference in Vienna that she called ‘The 50-Year Career’. Here she compellingly envisaged our working lives divided into five stages and considered the learning needs of a longer, productive career.

The presentation brought to my mind Jacques’ speech in Shakespeare’s As You Like It (1599) printed below. Unlike Martin-Retortillo, he envisages a life that has seven distinct phases, or the ‘Seven Ages of Man’ as the speech has become known.

‘And one man in his time plays many parts, His acts being seven ages’.

For me, two of Shakespeare’s seven ‘ages’ are particularly interesting. In the early twenty first century, they are the stages undergoing huge structural transformation. His third age, that of energy and action, where a young man ‘bearded like the pard’ seeks ‘the bubble reputation’ roughly equates – if I do my maths right - to the disrupted and uncontained decade experienced by those in their twenties. His sixth age of wisdom, ‘With spectacles on nose and pouch on side’, addresses those in their sixties. There have been radical transformations to the way these two decades are lived, compared to the experience of time in 1603 when Shakespeare wrote ‘As You Like It’. The elongation of life, energy, health, access to education and mobility for the fortunate many is still largely unmet and uncapitalised upon by a structured response from companies, governments and society.

Many in their twenties run to stand still. Uncommitted to by corporates in the gig economy, under invested-in and largely under paid, they can fall between the cracks. The ebullient ‘strange oaths’ of Shakespeare’s young bloods are not so easy to utter when you have three jobs, an hour and a half commute and debt clocking up interest at 6 percent. We need the confident, innovative, challenging voice of the young in our companies but fail to give them the psychological safety to be difficult while at the same time helping them to think longer term about multi-stage careers. Which companies are thinking in a more visionary way about the development of their young recruits in terms of life design?

Those in their sixties, in some key respects, are still dealt with by government and businesses as if they are only fit to totter off in their ‘lean and slipper’d pantaloon’ while many will be granted at least another decade or two of healthy, active life. If Shakespeare had been writing today, he would have revised his stages. When Bismarck launched the first pension scheme in the 1880’s, it was envisaged that people would live 7 years beyond retirement. In their 2017 report, the WEF said that someone who retires in Japan today at the age of 60 can expect to live another 45 years. Yet, some companies are still pensioning off their people at 55 and watching their corporate experience and wisdom walk out of the door, to the detriment of everyone. For wisdom to be beneficial it has to be connected and fuelled with contemporary knowledge – so, how are organisations inventing new ways to support and tap this wisdom? What new shape and purpose are people giving to their lives that even Shakespeare would not have imagined, as they launch into their sixties?

We are looking to learn from both sides of the ‘life design gap’ – as we pursue our work on transitions and to explore the many productive ‘parts’ that men and women play through their lives.

Tracey Camilleri

Charting a Path - Five Practices for Embracing Complexity

“Corporate leaders are expected to be bold generals who forecast the future, devise grand strategies, lead their troops into glorious battle – and then are fired at the first lost skirmish. It takes a courageous executive to push back against this mindset, admit the inherent uncertainty of the future, and emphasise learning and adapting over predicting and planning”

Gavin Blog.jpg

This passage from Eric Beinhocker (Director of the Institute for New Economic Thinking at Oxford University) frames one of the biggest challenges of leading in a complex world. He captures perfectly a simplistic caricature of leadership that is unfit for this world. But perhaps the most important words in that passage are the first four

Leaders are expected to…

Easy answers to complex questions are alluring, whether in business or politics. We like clarity and we revere vision. Those things are important but, without a true appreciation of and willingness to explore the complexity of the world, they are not enough. In a busy and distractible world, with an expectation to execute at speed and to work to ever tightening deadlines, what can leaders do to embrace complexity?

Here are five practices that we build with the leaders and teams we work with.

Create space

To develop approaches to our biggest challenges, strategic thinking time simply can’t be snatched between meetings or, worse even, during meetings. Leaders must create dedicated time and space to explore challenges widely. Strategic retreats and development programmes are becoming increasingly important to our clients as spaces for exploration. These are not about learning more or adding new information to a mental vessel fit to burst but to provide time to re-think, exploring asking questions like:

  • What do we keep putting off because we are we too busy?

  • What can we see on the boundaries of our industry?

  • What do we need to understand better?

  • What trends are we interested in (even if we can’t yet articulate why)?

These aren’t intended as a recipe of questions but rather demonstration of the open, enquiring questions that this kind of space opens. What they have in common is that they emerge from people spending time looking outside and inside their normal environment, without feeling the need to turn this exploration into a project or product. This mode of ‘head down’ thinking only encourages leaders to narrow their perspective or get stuck in incrementalism that is the norm for many in their day-to-day working life. Such events that are are crucial but not enough. They need to be a catalyst for daily reflective practice and a stimulus for curiosity that extends well beyond their formal ending

Embrace diverse perspectives

There is no point in creating space to consider complexity and then filling it with people who hold one collective viewpoint. Of course one needs to have some shared intent but, beyond that, the broader the range of perspectives that can be drawn on the better. Demographic diversity is part of this but, of equal importance, are the different perspectives that emerge from engaging with people who have different academic and professional backgrounds. Again, there is no recipe but some pointers include:

  • Whose voices are we missing from our discussions?

  • How would someone with a very different perspective approach this same problem?

  • Who might see our challenges completely differently from us?

This diversity of perspective can be harvested in multiple ways – through face to face networking, through reading and research but also cognitively – how often do you deliberately take the perspective of your most cynical stakeholder – not in the ‘game theory’ sense of developing your next move to win the argument but really trying to walk in their shoes? Including people with different perspectives and priorities, perhaps even different versions of the truth, can easily become an intellectual competition. It is challenging for many of us to let go of our own sense of being right but failing to do so will move a well-intentioned attempt to embrace diversity toward stagnant and unending debate.

Balance time horizons

  • Given our purpose, what could we hope to achieve in a decade?

  • If we know what we want to be in a decade, what are the most important challenges for us right now?

  • If someone arrived from the future, what would they challenge us to do now?

  • What would someone from the future tell us to stop?

For some readers, these aren’t new questions. What I want to reflect on is what they ask of us. They require us to take different perspectives, to imagine a future in the context of uncertainty. They force us to remember that we influence the way that future plays out in some way. It is sometimes argued that the speed of change in the world means that long-term strategy is dead. At the same time, many lament the way that short time spans in both business and politics create perverse incentives and lead us to shy away from the biggest challenges. In embracing complexity, time frames are something to be played with. There is creative tension between short-term action planning and long-term strategy. Take one example, businesses that really care about making a social contribution recognise that they need to be in business tomorrow in order to deliver value decades from now. But the need to be in business tomorrow doesn’t mean they can ignore challenges like creating carbon neutral business models or contributing to global physical wellbeing right now. Eventually the ripple on the horizon is the wave crashing upon the shore. All of this is easy to say and harder to do. Humans, even those with a strategic mind, are drawn to the present – to seeking short-term reward and avoiding immediate cost. Shifting time horizons enables leaders to connect future benefits (or the avoidance of future challenges) to potentially unarticulated present benefits, to create narratives that connect immediate action to a future vision. In our experience, leaders are capable of doing this and they enjoy it. They may even see it as the single most important element of leadership, but all too often lack either the time or the cognitive space really to engage in this kind of thinking.

Develop deep thinking habits

MIT professor Cal Newport writes about ‘deep work’. In his book of that name he emphasises the importance of creating habits and rituals that are distraction free, that create a context in which the importance of in-the-moment responsiveness diminishes and the cognitive systems involved in creative thinking and problem solving begin to whir. Restricting this type of thinking to the ‘spaces’ discussed above is dangerous. Anyone wishing to add real value or to produce any form of innovation or novelty needs to get serious about creating and protecting this kind of thinking time. Most of the leaders that we work with recognise that this need to create time and space for deep work is crucial for themselves and their teams but are struggling to do so on both fronts. This is linked to the perils of short-termism described above – it is one thing to recognise that time spent engaged in creative problem solving and planning is important and another thing to give it priority over the existing meetings, pitches, and project updates that are already scheduled. Here, as with many things in business, the question of what we are not going to do becomes at least as important as what we want to do.

Challenge your own thinking

The more complex the challenges we are faced with, the more willing we need to be to challenge our thinking. This doesn’t mean questioning everything but having a guardrail against over-simplification and searching for cognitive blind spots. In her book Simple Habits for Complex Times, Jennifer Garvey Berger suggests pausing to ask oneself:

  • How could I be wrong?

This is perhaps the most challenging of all of these five practices (the others can all be enjoyable and deeply rewarding). We have personal, educational and professional histories that reward us for being right meaning that challenging our own thinking and holding open the possibility that we are wrong feels counterintuitive. Even more uncomfortably, the counterarguments to our own position often require us to take positions that are antithetical to our own, perhaps even step into territories wherein we take the perspective of people very different to ourselves, perhaps even people we really dislike. But like it or not, such challenges are instructive. This is not to live in a world without truth or to deny our own (or others’ expertise). Quite the opposite: it is the recognition that, in a complex world, what we know is useful but what we might be missing is essential.

We have the privilege of working with leaders who are naturally curious and open, willing to question themselves and what they know. These traits are important but not enough on their own. Combined with the kind of practices summarised they are harnessed in service of learning, adaptation and, ultimately, charting a path through complexity.

Dr. Gavin Weeks

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.


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