Applying complexity concepts in business and daily life may seem challenging, as we often associate complexity with difficulty. In my years of grappling with this concept, I’ve distilled my understanding into a simple perspective: embracing complexity helps me confront the unexpected, unveils hidden connections, keeps me grounded in the present, and expands my choices.
It’s crucial to debunk the misconception that grasping these concepts requires a superior intellect, a high-ranking position, or involvement in intricate issues. I’ve discovered that a key prerequisite is the ability to maintain curiosity and comfort with uncertainty, even if only momentarily. Let’s explore the fascinating world of complexity together, where a curious mindset reigns supreme, and you’ll find that it’s a journey open to all, regardless of background or status.
In this brief exploration, let’s dive into the fascinating realm of non-linearity. Imagine a world where connections are like hidden threads, weaving a complex tapestry that eludes our perception when we limit ourselves to the simplicity of input-output or cause-effect relationships. Here, we step into the enigmatic space where the connection between independent and dependent variables refuses to conform to the predictability of a straight line. Drawing inspiration from the profound metaphor of maps and territories crafted by the late Ralph Stacey, I invite you to join me in navigating a real-life 2023 example that vividly embodies the essence of this intricate dance. Get ready to traverse uncharted territories and witness the fascinating interplay where the unexpected takes centre stage.
Think of “maps” as the collection of ideas, processes, and principles we’ve relied on to navigate various environments successfully. These maps may stem from our experiences or borrow from others (like a lengthy list of how-to’s, frameworks, definitions, etc).
On the other hand, the “territory” is the dynamic context in which we apply these maps. It encompasses our organization, business unit, portfolio, service types, relationships, and ourselves. The richness of understanding and effective navigation truly unfolds in this interplay between well-crafted maps and the ever-shifting terrain of the territory. Let’s explore how these maps guide us through the intricacies of real-world contexts in 2023.
Linearity often resembles a monotonous “Wash, Rinse, Repeat” cycle. We mindlessly take our familiar map and reapply it, mainly if it’s led to resounding success in the past—until, of course, it hits a point of ineffectiveness. When that happens, we stand at a crossroads: blame others or ourselves, stubbornly double down on our existing approach, or perhaps entertain the idea of gaining a fresh perspective. The challenge lies in breaking free from the rinse-and-repeat routine and embracing the dynamic exploration of alternatives.
Recently, a client, whom I will call Mary, had just entered a role packed with increased responsibility and heightened exposure to the broader organization. While the promotion hadn’t been a proactive pursuit on her part, the allure of the role and the desire to try something new had swayed her decision. Transitioning from the realm of a Product Manager to the expansive role of a Product Area Manager, overseeing not just one team but several teams and projects marked a significant shift.
In the initial weeks, however, a sense of discouragement loomed large. The once-familiar landscape of accomplishing tasks seemed elusive. There was no longer a specific home base to anchor to, and although she was involved in everything, it paradoxically felt like she was part of nothing. The reality of the role diverged from her preconceived ideas, leaving her grappling with a discrepancy between expectations and the unfolding reality. And ask herself if she has made the right decision.
A pivotal aspect of complexity-based approaches lies in their indirect and nuanced nature, tailored to the unique contours of each context or situation. Instead of hastily diving into immediate actions, I encouraged the client to embark on a journey of sharing and exploring the context.
In this instance, delving into the context meant cultivating curiosity about the “expectations” – a key to deciphering what she perceived as broken or needing repair. These expectations were tethered to a series of ways or metrics to measure success based on the map of her previous role. In her past position, she orchestrated collaborative efforts, delivering results with her team in rapid cycles. The joy stemmed from the swift accomplishment of tasks, a profound sense of connection within her team despite a hybrid work setup, and a singular focus on one product, coupled with unequivocal clarity on desired outcomes.
In Mary’s new role, the demands on her time stretched across three distinct focus areas—no longer confined solely to the product but also extending to the technical aspects and facilitating seamless collaboration among teams. Complicating matters, she found herself in a tight-knit, non-co-located group. The challenge lay in the perceived inability to contribute substantially, particularly since she didn’t consider herself an expert in the other domains.
The real struggle surfaced in the prolonged timelines, a stark contrast to the swift pace she was accustomed to. What used to be achieved in days now unfolded over months, making the attainment of milestones feel like a marathon rather than a sprint. The shift in dynamics and the extended durations added complexity to her new professional landscape, intensifying the perceived difficulty of the transition.
The territory (her new role) was different as the new features of the terrain (role deliverables) asked for her to change her focus from:
Short < —— > Medium Term
Direct input < —– > Working through others.
Immediate reward < —— > Delayed gratification
Output < —– > Process
Unrecognized by her, she consistently assessed her performance through the lens of her previous map, measuring success by milestones achieved and the quality of team connectivity, often falling short. Mary recognised the need for a new approach in this uncharted territory of her new role and created a fresh map for success.
One of her initial game-changing moves was donning a different hat—transitioning from the Expert mindset (“I know what I’m doing”) to the Explorer perspective (“Let me learn from/about this new territory”). This shift began a series of experiments aimed at generating new evidence. The focus was twofold: understanding what works for her (a scale at the personal level) and deciphering what resonates with the teams she supports (another scale), all while considering the broader impact on the organization (yet another level of scale).
On a personal level, Mary recognized her desire for increased connection, prompting an experiment to identify the work teams that could fulfil this need. An illuminating revelation surfaced during this exploration—she discovered that the richness of connection hinged on consistent interactions through work. She was then able to incorporate this newfound insight into her criteria. As part of her new atomized team with whom she shared broader responsibilities at the broader organizational level, she delved into how her expertise could contribute meaningfully to their collective objectives.
Curious about what defines an experiment in this context? It’s not about rigidly testing a hypothesis to confirm or deny—it’s about diving headfirst into the unknown solely to unravel the mysteries and learn from the unexpected. I can almost hear the echoes of wisdom from Glenda Eoyang and Royce Holladay, emphasizing that if you can predict the outcome, it’s not truly an experiment! A wealth of untapped knowledge exists, even in scenarios where Mary decided against conducting the experiment or external conditions prevented its execution.
Mary’s story is about shifting the focus from rigid performance measures to the dynamic(al) interplay of self-discovery, team dynamics, and organizational impact—a tale of navigating uncharted waters with a newfound perspective.
This story is a work in progress, much like any dynamic and ever-changing complex adaptive system. What stood out for Mary was a profound realization of the limitations of her past success-based criteria. In our ongoing conversations, we delved into alternative measures that could guide her journey.
Mary’s attractors, the forces that kept her in a state of flow, centred around connections with others, a sense of achievement, and contributing her expertise. She recognized the need for fresh language and metrics to align with this evolving understanding. Rather than focusing solely on output quantities, the new metrics were intricately tied to processes and the ‘how-to’s’ of her endeavours.
The exciting part? Her experiments and action plan are born from these transformative discoveries, promising a continued evolution of her narrative. Stay tuned as this narrative unfolds, revealing the dynamic shifts in her approach and mindset and mirroring the ever-changing dynamics of a complex adaptive system.
In just under an hour, a remarkable transformation occurred. She departed with relief and a personalized strategy she had crafted—the model tailored to her unique context.
This exemplifies the fascinating world of non-linearity, extending beyond the confines of cause-and-effect relationships and predictability. This example vividly illustrates how uncharted territories, the unknowns, can emerge unexpectedly, manifesting at various scales and within different contexts. The journey of discovery is rich with surprises, and this was just a glimpse into the dynamic interplay of complexity at play.
Adaptive Action Cycle: Human Systems Dynamics