Do you feel like you are drowning in information? Are you struggling to see what the second and third order effects of your decision making might be? Are you baffled by the reasons behind why people make certain decisions?

Chances are you’re suffering from ‘complexity.’

“Complexity?” I hear you ask. “What is complexity and what is the cure?”

Well, there is no real cure. Complexity is here to stay, and there is no simple answer to it. You cannot make it go away.

What you can do, however, is manage it, navigate it and learn to understand the effects of it. Want to know how? Then, read on.

“You can’t stop the waves, but you can learn to surf.”

– Jon Kabat-Zinn

The introduction above is a little flippant. However, the truth is that these days there is a lot of talk about complexity. You may have heard of the term VUCA. VUCA stands for Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous. It’s a term originally used by the U.S. military following the end of the Cold War. It has gained more common usage in business circles to describe the challenges of an interconnected and globalised society. We now have access to information more than we ever had in our history. The data feed, however, is not linear or straightforward. The number of channels by which data can be accessed, or pushed to us, has multiplied. The world is far more interconnected and what might seem like simple decisions can have wide-ranging effects.

In their book ‘Simple Habits for Complex Times’, Jennifer Garvey Berger and Keith Johnston discuss three techniques, summarised below, that can help you start to understand complexity. They do this through a mix of theory and parable, telling the story of an organisation dealing with a complex issue and describing how they go about dealing with it. The three techniques are:

1. Ask different questions. Typically, we look to our leaders for answers. The stereotypical view of a leader is someone with the solutions to all our problems. This view implies a certain amount of predictability.  However, in a complex world uncertainty is one of complexity’s bedfellows. The other issue with this image relates to what happens when the leader leaves. If the leader has all the answers, how do the junior leaders learn? Garvey Berger and Lawson offer that we should start asking questions about things we genuinely don’t know the answers to and try and generate questions we haven’t asked before. Doing this with a curious and growth mindset allows us to see opportunities for problem-solving. It also gets others thinking and developing their capabilities.

2. Take multiple perspectives. A complex environment means you will, most likely, have multiple stakeholders. How those stakeholders react to your decisions will depend on the pressures applied by and the diverse influences of their respective stakeholders. You are but one. Additionally, most people are not coming to work each day with the sole intention of making your day worse.  Like you, they are likely trying to do the best job they can. Clashes occur when your view and theirs about what the ‘right thing to do’ differ. When we start to see where the other person is coming from our capacity for relationship building increases as does our ability to work together and achieve goals that are mutually beneficial.

3. See systems. We don’t work in a vacuum. We come together in teams, or teams of teams, to achieve goals and outcomes. At the very least we interact with different organisations, customers, cross-functional groups, our families and the public. All of these elements form a “complex system of policies, people, relationships, experiences and histories.” If we can start to look at the system and see how the interrelated parts are interacting and influencing one another we start to see how the conditions are being created to either succeed, fail or achieve something in between.

A different application

When I work with clients attempting to deal with complex issues I will sometimes use a modified approach to Garvey Berger and Lawson’s work. The aim of the exercise — and this is an important point — is not to come up with answers. In most situations, the client is wrestling with an issue and has hit a brick wall. Or maybe they’ve tried to come up with a solution, and it hasn’t worked. What this activity is designed to do is to expand the thinking and open up the mind to seeing opportunities.

To get started, find yourself a blank piece of paper and a clear space. Allow yourself about 30 min to run through the exercise for the first time. As you practice it more and more, you should be able to reduce the time. Indeed as you become further practised, you won’t need the paper, and you will find this process will become a habit.

Step 1: Draw a Network

Think of a project you are currently working on and where you feel that you have reached a dead end. Perhaps there is a particular individual who is being obstructionist or oppositional to your task. On your piece of paper start mapping out all the stakeholders. It does not need to be a work of art and it does not need to be entirely accurate. It just needs to be a rough map that includes as many of the stakeholders, policies and other relevant factors that you can recall. At this point, it is not necessary to analyse the connections but just draw lines between those factors that are related, those stakeholders that are influencing one another and those factors that are impacting you, others and the issue.

Once you have completed the diagram ask yourself, “What do I see here that I was not aware of before?” What connections have you made on paper that you hadn’t been aware of previously? It could be a relationship between two people or two groups of people. It could be a link between an organisation and a policy or market factor. The important thing is to approach the activity with an open mind.

Step 2: Take a Different Perspective

Take a look at all the stakeholders on your network map. It is now time to put yourself in their shoes. What is driving them to do what they do? What are their priorities? What is influencing them? On your network map place one to two words that describe your perception of their perspective around each stakeholder, node or relationship line.

There are three notes of caution around this step:

  1. Your comprehension doesn’t need to be perfect. Just come up with a couple of options for perspectives that make sense based on the person’s behaviour. For example, you might say something like “Person X opposes the idea of Y because he fundamentally believes that Z is the best outcome for all concerned.”
  1. Don’t limit yourself to just one perspective option. Try to come up with 2-3 possibilities that make sense. Maybe even try one or two that don’t.
  1. Make sure the mindset you use when adopting the perspective of others reflects the belief that person is genuinely trying to contribute in the best way they know how.  This is especially important for someone you see as oppositional.  Most people are generally not being a pain in the … just for the sake of it!! Remember, everyone is trying to add value in their own way.

As you complete this step, again, ask yourself, “What information is new here? What patterns am I seeing?”

Step 3: Ask Questions

Here comes the fun bit. Look at the diagram and challenge yourself, “What don’t I know and what am I genuinely curious about?” Assign a question to each node, person, relationship or link. Preferably this is a question that you haven’t asked before. “Why did they do that?” is too cliché. Sorry people. “Noting this team’s possible perspective, what are my opportunities to engage with them?” is getting closer to the mark. Challenge yourself to come up with a different question. For more about asking different questions, please see my blog here .

The significant thing during this step is that you don’t need answers. You have a couple of options here. You can finish your reflection, approach the people on your diagram and engage them in conversation specifically around the questions that you have. Or, if that’s not appropriate and a bit too confrontational, just ask yourself the question, allow the question to sit with you a moment and trust that in time insight will come. By doing so, you prime a section of your brain called the Reticular Activation System to see opportunities and answers as they arise. You can now approach your tasks and conversations alert to new knowledge and ways in which you can work together to achieve mutually beneficial outcomes.

The aim of this complete process is not, as I’ve said, to come up with answers or immediately solve problems. Complexity doesn’t work that way. What it is designed to do is to start to broaden your view of a situation and allow you to recognise opportunities to work together and achieve common goals as they emerge.

So, what I would like you to do is …

Over the next week, identify some issues that you are finding troublesome. Are they complex problems? Do they have multiple stakeholders? Does your current list of questions remain unanswered? If so, try out the process above. You might just start to see connections and opportunities you had failed to see previously.

When you do try it out I would love to hear about how it went for you. What worked? What didn’t? How would you modify the process? I have a few ideas about this and, as members of the Campbell Leadership Clan, we are all learning together. I want to learn from you as much as you learn from me. Please leave your comments and suggestions in the appropriate section below.

Is there someone that you know who could use this tool to deal with a complex problem or issue? Please feel free to share this article with them or challenge yourself to coach them through using the process I’ve outlined above. Again, I’d love to hear how that went.

If you would like to discuss this, or any leadership related issues, please feel free to get in contact with the team at Campbell Leadership Solutions (link).

Thank you for reading and leading.