People are rewarded in organizations for sorting out complicated problems. Think of engineers who design a product to strict customer requirements, doctors who re-attach ligaments, or IT professionals who create new platforms for digital products. They have a high level expertise, scrupulous attention to detail and the ability to analyze large amounts of data.
There’s a second kind of skill, however, that often trumps “sorting-out-complicated-questions” and it’s no longer required just for those at the very upper echelons of organizations. This skill is the opposite sort the aforementioned might aspire to because, while those expert technicians and problem solvers will often seek perfect solutions – perfect designs, perfect incisions, or perfect code – we see that managing complexity is more likely to be in short supply among our global clients.
By way of example, I’ve come to recognize the need over the years to embrace a more complex approach to a domain that is near and dear to my heart: cross-cultural communication and leadership. For 20 years I’ve been a speaker and facilitator on this topic and for much of that time I had little objection to the assessments that put different countries into different categories and speak categorically about “People A” vs “People B”. But for some time now, I’ve grown uncomfortable with these categorizations because they no longer reflect the complex world where the majority of people we meet live. The complex set of circumstances of most people we meet defy categorization, whether the assessment uses a dozen – or a hundred – attributes. Instead, I’ve found that teaching and modeling group process skills to leaders, for example, is quintessentially more useful in that it provides tools for ambiguous situations of many kinds. These group process skills – along with high self-awareness – build one’s capacity for learning, understanding, flexibility, and agility – all important competencies in our complex world.
But what is managing complexity?
Complexity requires different muscles, and includes elements such as: valuing orderly problem solving as well as working with ambiguity; developing a broad set of relationships based on trust; and incorporating knowledge of one’s self with knowledge of one’s multi-layered context.
Every day we see leaders who stall in their careers due to unease with managing complexity. Personally, I believe there’s confusion on what should be treated as simple and what shouldn’t, and so we simplify the wrong things, like ignoring the need to build trust with others in exchange for speedy agreements, or spending one’s time doing what is easier instead of what is most important.
Hurdles are high for those who want to manage complexity more gracefully but also want to avoid criticism, avoid risk, get overwhelmed, are disorganized, or choose excessive structure and control. Sometimes these challenged leaders can be identified by behaviors such as:
– Relying too much on personal strengths
– Believing strongly in personal consistency and following a few principles
– Rigidly following or overdoing his/her one best way
– Having trouble shifting modes of behavior in the same meeting or situation
Wonder where you are in your ability to manage complexity? Ask yourself:
– What percentage of the time do I stay on autopilot?
– Do I take the time to reflect on what I’m learning? Am I asking for enough feedback?
– Do I avoid putting myself in situations that call for my weakness?
– Do I know why I feel blocked in certain areas or are feeling stressed?
– Can I turn off the like-dislike button and learn from others around me?
Instead, a leader who can thrive in complexity:
– Can act in ways that seem contradictory (but not wishy-washy or two–faced)
– Can shift gears comfortably
– Can decide and act without the entire picture
– Isn’t upset when things are up in air
– Doesn’t need to finish things before moving on
– Comfortably handles risk and uncertainty
– Is flexible and adaptable when facing tough situations
– Can combine seeming opposites like being compassionately tough, standing up for one’s self without infringing on others, set strong but flexible standards
– Can act differently depending on situation, without confusing people
– Is seen as balanced despite the conflicting demands of the situation
The ability to develop these skills doesn’t come easily because rich learning environments for these topics require stretching minds in non-traditional ways, and come in forms you might not expect. While on-the-job learning is always ideal (think Change Agent, Fix-its, Turnarounds, Chair of Task Force), how might a highly experiential event where you are measuring your own effectiveness in a highly diverse group stretch you in unexpected ways?
We will be sharing more of our thinking (and an offering) on the learning of these skills in an upcoming post. Until then, I’ll end with a quote from business author and Senior Fellow at The Conference Board, Gyan Nagpal, who offered this wonderful paradox: “The only way to control chaos and complexity is to give up some of that control”