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  • Writer's pictureDr. Gavin Weeks

Untangling: from intricate confusion to elegant solution

We recently launched a new programme on strategic thinking and action. In the first session we started broad, thinking about how strategic leaders need to connect with and explore the megatrends that will shape the future for businesses. We looked at population, demographics, technology, climate, the kinds of issues that were the focus of strategic conversations before the pandemic took over our collective consciousness. The most interesting, exciting, and daunting thing about megatrends is that they are tangled. The pandemic is an example of the tangling of trends: it spread through global travel; the rate of infection was influenced by population density. Our immediate response has potentially accelerated digital working trends. The vaccine was developed through global cooperation and yet our vaccination attempts seem to be being pulled apart by the forces of fragmentation. Reflect for a moment on this definition of the word ‘tangled’: To knit together in intricate confusion

Intricate confusion is such a profound description of the state we find ourselves in as we mark a year of lockdown restrictions, at least here in the UK. There is a collective and profound lack of clarity about what life will be like even a few months ahead. Not just because of the pandemic but also the tangled consequences of it: the uncertain economic impact, the acceleration of debates around the right to protest and how it should be policed, the consequences for how we gather together for work and to socialise. But it is not just trends that are tangled. Tangled is a good way to describe the state that many of us feel when faced with uncertainty and complexity. In organisations we can be tangled in many different ways. Here are just a few that we see regularly:

  • Time Tangles – by trying to do too much with too little

  • Attention Tangles – by trying to focus on too much and being bombarded by more stimulus

  • Complexity Tangles – by being so confused by the complexity of the whole that we can’t see how to change the parts

  • Cultural Tangles – by being constrained in our attempts to create the future by the systems, habits, and assumptions that formed the past

Look carefully and you can see examples of this tangling in all organisations. Responses can be as entwined as the problems themselves, with workstreams that become impossible to align and project plans so complicated that they can bring on a tension headache. These responses can turn the tangle into a knot: we feel stuck, unable to move forward, constrained by forces inside and outside us. Sitting with this uncertainty is uncomfortable and, in an era obsessed by efficiency, feels wasteful. We press on, waiting (or hoping) for clarity to come from above. Alternatively, we reach for simplicity, hiding behind the false certainty of a new mantra or slogan (‘build back better’; ‘level up’). These approaches might feel hopeful, righteous even, but discourage the curiosity, reflection, and experimentation that we need to engage in. What is the alternative? One of my favourite fictional characters is Mathew Shardlake, the creation of novelist CJ Sansom. Shardlake is a lawyer and investigator and Sansom’s series, set in Tudor England, follows him as he unravels plots and conspiracies amidst the political and religious turmoil of the time. This is how he describes his work: “You untangle a knot with slow teasing, not sharp pulling, and believe me we have here a knot such as I have never seen. But I will unpick it.” In many ways our work is about helping people to untangle themselves so that they can take purposeful action – slowing down, focusing on what really matters, and helping them to create just enough space amidst the intricate confusion to see elegant solutions. Dr. Gavin Weeks

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