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”

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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