“Uncertainty is a sign of humility, and humility is just the ability or the willingness to learn.” – Charlie Sheen
Who would have thought that Charlie Sheen had it right? Leading and focusing on getting better outcomes in complex systems is a huge challenge and if we are going to do it well we will have to become much more comfortable with the humility of not knowing the answers and a willingness to learn.
“We cannot solve our problems with the same level of thinking that created them'” – Einstein
Our default control centre approach serves us well when faced with both simple and complicated challenges, complicated systems have experts and blueprints and plans and algorithms. Houston was the control centre that put a man on the moon, the Consultant Surgeon has expert control over the brain surgery. The work can be controlled, measured, monitored, managed.
Leadership in complexity is different though, it has less certainty, and is focused on creating the conditions for emergence to happen
- Disequilibrium state (edge of chaos)
- Amplifying actions
- Self organisation and recombination
- Stabilising feedback
It focuses on the dynamic interactions between all individuals, explaining how those interactions can produce emergent outcomes.
- The leadership of emergence: A complex systems leadership theory of emergence at successive organisational levels
Complex systems also have multiple connected parts but the control centre is ill equipped for the web-like interface of interdependencies that are constantly adapting to their turbulent surroundings. Of all places, the Washington Post gives a neat simple explanation of the difference between complicated and complex:
‘But we just need to do a bit more of that control centre stuff’, I hear you say…well it’s not that simple…have a quick look at a demonstration of a complex system in action.
On the face of it the group made the task look relatively easy, but the question at the end was great…”What if we had put someone in charge?” “What if we had tried to lead this? To direct it? To monitor distance? To measure performance?”
What if the group were less compliant? If one member was feeling rebellious, or put out, or selfish? What would happen if one part of the system didn’t play along and did their own thing? What happens when one of the bits of the system has to move?
More control, more management, more measurement won’t get us our system outcomes in this complex system, but what will?
Leading complex systems means creating the right conditions and environment for the movement to happen and for the system to continually flourish by doing these things:
- Challenge habits and rituals
- Increase information flow
- Issue unconventional challenges
- Connect to core purpose
- Ask “what if…?”
- Promote contentions
- Understand you are a custodian, not in control
- Foster diversity
- Facilitate connections & conversations in the system
- Look for emergent unbidden patterns
- Have audacious ambition
Commissioning for outcomes
This is all great in theory but how do we actually put some of this into action? Richard Selwyn’s Leadership Handbook connects the theoretical to the practical and challenges us to behave radically differently.
“Outcomes & Efficiency is a must for all of those…who are trying to move beyond talking about the need for radical change to actually doing something about it.” – Mark Rogers, Chief Executive of Solihull Council,
Whose impact, whose outcomes?
The Health Foundation also challenges us to collaborate and co-produce with our communities, facilitating the emergence of outcomes from the dialogue we engage in with the community.
And it’s not just in the public sector that collaboration and connection are the powerful drivers behind change, Seth Godin has some great ideas about how our ability to connect to communities (or Tribes as he calls them) in our disconnected age can lead to social change. He calls on us to:
- Tell a story
- Connect a tribe
- Lead a movement
- Make a change
What else should I read?
- Sharon Varney Complexity uncovered
- A little more on Complex v Complicated
- Howard Rheingold on Collaboration
- Complex adaptive leadership
- System thinking sounds interesting – be warned
- System thinking in the real world of the police