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The challenge of complexity in a post-COVID world

In a post-COVID world the most critical role of leadership may be to navigate unfamiliar territory that is characterise by complexity. Of course, complexity is nothing new. Indeed, since long before the pandemic, analysts have predicted a sustained period of economic volatility. As businesses begin to emerge from the tight constraints of the lockdown period, however, it is apparent that we are dealing with a highly complex environment that may be unfamiliar, stressful and indeed lonely for people in senior leadership roles.

The good news is that you can thrive, as a leader, by adapting your mindset (or motivations) and building diverse teams to create the conditions for others to thrive.

Before we get into it, let’s explore complexity.


What do we mean by complexity?

Complexity generally refers to a situation where multiple interrelated variables interact in dynamic and unpredictable ways. The earth’s environment is complex. Geopolitics are complex.  The human body is complex. Not every aspect of business is complex, but as social organisms operating in a wider context, leading them is increasingly so. Decision-making is often uncertain and ambiguous. There is no linear path to success, no blueprint to follow. And that was before coronavirus.


Complexity and Snowden’s Cynefin Framework

A useful model for understanding complexity and its implications for leadership is David Snowden’s Cynefin framework.  Cynefin helps make sense of different situations in terms of their relative predictability and order, and acts as a guide for leadership decision-making. It has four contexts or ‘domains’: Clear (also known as obvious or simple), Complicated, Complex and Chaotic (as well as a fifth, Disorder, in which it might not be apparent which of the other four apply).

Snowden's Cynefin framework of complexity

Snowden’s Cynefin framework of complexity

The ordered domains – Clear and Complicated

Briefly, ordered contexts are either clear (obvious) or complicated. Clear contexts are characterised by predictability and known cause and effect (known knowns). Do x and you will get y. If you are, for example, manufacturing widgets there are ‘best practices’ (e.g. processes) that you can follow to get the best results.

The complicated domain refers to more difficult problem (known unknowns) that, while they require the analysis of experts, still have relatively predictable outcomes. There may be multiple acceptable solutions, however, and therefore only “good practice”.


The unordered domain – Chaotic and Complex

Unordered contexts can be chaotic; constantly shifting and unmanageable; or complex. In a chaotic context, you must act first, then try to make sense of the situation and respond. In the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic businesses had to make swift decisions to close down premises to stop transmission and wait for guidance and support. There’s no room for analysis, which will only slow down the response, before the dust settles.


COVID: Moving from Chaos to Complexity

As new rules for doing business with COVID have begun to emerge, we have entered a period of complexity. There are still many moving parts and high levels of uncertainty. It is not clear when and how the lockdown will be lifted, how people will respond, what impact that will have on the virus, and so on. As a business leader you cannot see far ahead – solutions, plans and knowledge can only really emerge as you engage with or “probe” then “sense” how to respond. Again, traditional analytical approaches will struggle to provide an answer.

In a complex business context, which could equally be caused by unexpected results, market disruption or another major change – there are no correct answers, only “unknown unknowns” (Remember Donald Rumsfeld?). In this situation, not only might people disagree on the solution; they might also disagree on what the problem is that needs to be solved.


Sources of Complexity – Uncertainty and Ambiguity (or Paradox)



The first aspect of complexity is unpredictability or uncertainty. If you do x, you don’t know whether you’ll get y, z or something else entirely. Uncertainty means risk, and traditionally businesses have viewed risk as something to minimise. Uncertainty can therefore be very stressful. At the same time, it can be very enjoyable. That’s why some people gamble, and some people are serial entrepreneurs. The difference is one of perception, which we’ll come back to.


Ambiguity and Paradox

Another aspect of paradox is the lack of order. The way ahead is unclear, ambiguous. That ambiguity is often caused by paradoxical tensions: Options that appear to be competing but are also related or even mutually supportive.


Understanding paradox – Reversal Theory

Reversal Theory (Apter) provides a useful framework for understanding and unpicking these tensions. It suggests four fundamental tensions that are aligned to motivational values. Reversal Theory highlights that we can hold and manage competing values, even if it takes some work to navigate them; and simply acknowledging this can be helpful in itself.

The four fundamental tensions are between:

  • The future and the present (or planning versus execution)
  • Rules and freedom (or stability and change)
  • The individual and the team (or competition and collaboration)
  • Power and harmony (or competence and compassion)

Reflect on these for a moment and you might find that you, and the culture of your business, often favour one over the other. That might be necessary in specific situations, but over time it might be a form of bias. Complexity means having to deal with different manifestations and combinations of these tensions.


What does complexity mean for leadership?

Many businesses are still, as unfashionable as it would be to admit it, characterised by management by command and control: Hierarchical power structures; linear planning; tightly defined processes; and in a complex situation these can be very ineffective. Leaders must instead be able to create an environment that allows people to probe emerging patterns, experiment and find creative responses without fear or constraint.

According to Snowden:

“It is not just about responding to patterns, its about creating the conditions in which radical re-purposing is easier to stimulate and easy to recognise”.

How can you create the conditions for thriving in complexity?


Adapt your motivations to adapt your leadership style

Your leadership style is closely related to your motivations and the tensions already described. Although you may have learned to favour certain motivational styles over others in your working life, finding the alternative motivational style is simply a matter of perspective. If you can change the way you see things, you can respond very differently

apter avatarsFor example: If you tend to..

..be goal-driven, working carefully towards planned outcomes; when might you be more playful and spontaneous (or vice versa)?

..prefer structure, process and the ‘right way’; when do you like to provoke change, challenge or express yourself differently (or vice versa)?

..emphasise control, competency and delivery; when do you find yourself to be at your most caring, compassionate or empathetic (or vice versa)?

..step up, take personal responsibility and compete; when do you find yourself identifying with others, putting the team or the greater good first (or vice versa)?

In each of these examples, you might find that you can connect equally with both. That indicates adaptability. All of us, however, can connect with all of these styles to some degree. This is important, because you will may need to draw upon a different range of motivations to find the most effective styles in complex situations.

More specifically, complexity demands that you:

  • Work towards clear strategic goals, providing the safety to experiment and make mistakes
  • Accept that there’s no blueprint, creating structure that supports open debate and challenge
  • Encourage people to work together as a team, recognising that they contribute as individuals
  • Foster resilience, by being empathetic and compassionate in how you deal with people (and yourself)


Build diverse (leadership) teams

While it’s important to recognise that you can adapt your own style, it’s also important to look hard at the diversity of your team(s). Not just in the obvious sense, such as gender, race or sexuality but in the perspective they can bring (though people identified as ‘diverse’ have often learned the ‘outsider’ perspective).

apter avatars representing motivationsIt’s not always a comfortable experience working with people who see the world through different eyes but, (especially) when you’re leading through complexity, they are exactly the people you need to bring closer to you.

If you’re a natural planner, bring in someone more spontaneous. If you like structure, bring in someone who likes to be challenged. If you find it difficult to empathise, bring someone in who does. We’d recommend doing this anyway but, paradoxically, when you’re facing complexity it’s especially important even if the simplicity of keeping like-minded people around you might be seductive.

One role that you do need to find is a facilitator. Who can comfortably step in and pull those different styles together in a spirit of collaboration?

You’ll also need some structure to guide you and keep you together and avoid the temptation to impose it.


Final thoughts

If you’re in a senior leadership position, it can often feel like you have to be the one that’s driving or coming up with the answers to the ‘big’ problems. (After all, you’ve probably been promoted because you get stuff done.) That can make the job lonely and stressful, especially in complex situations. By recognising that you can adapt your own style and complement it by inviting in people with different perspectives, it can be a more rewarding experience.

Why not take the opportunity to reflect on your own styles, and how you might respond to complexity, by joining our virtual workshop?

Virtual workshop: Adapting your leadership style for changing circumstances

Learn how you can adapt your leadership style, to enable you and your organisation to thrive in these challenging and unpredictable times. Get info & tickets via eventbrite
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