“Concrete steps to lead in a complex environment Part. II”

by Didier Marlier on Sunday October 17th, 2010

Nick van Heck and Berend Jan Hilberts, our partners from Executive Learning Partnership[1], recently shared with me an excellent HBR article[2] from David Snowden founder of “The Cognitive Edge”[3].

Snowden suggests an interesting frame for preparing ourselves to lead in the new emerging Open Economy, whilst keeping on track in today’s uncomfortable aftermath of the financial crisis.

The model particularly resonated with me as I find it very a great development from our “Historical Matrix”:

This model was used as one of the basis for the “Think Tank” launched by the Fundação Dom Cabral and fourteen Brazilian CEO’s on Leading in the Open Economy[4]. It suggests an evolution towards a dynamic context and methods of management to be re-invented.

Snowden distinguishes four contexts to which leaders can be confronted:

  • Simple Contexts (the domain of best practice): In such environments, “characterized by stability and clear cause-and-effect relationships” leadership is rather straightforward. Leaders “sense, categorize, and respond”. It is time for delegation; Subordinates, if well prepared, should be able to quickly asses/classify and deal with such situations. It is the world of day to day operations, routine, procedures and standard processes. One of the main dangers of leading in such a context is the “entrained thinking” whereby we get blinded by habits and mental maps and fail to look for/see the unusual.
  • Complicated Contexts (the domain of experts): Linear cause-and-effect thinking still applies here although in a more sophisticated way. For Snowden, “This is the realm of “known unknowns.” While leaders in a simple context must sense, categorize, and respond to a situation, those in a complicated context must sense, analyze, and respond”. Several responses may be available here. This is the context blessed by specialists, business schools, MBA’s and other consultants…
  • Complex Contexts (the Domain of Emergence): This is where the new Open Economy is taking us. These are the contexts drawn on the right hand side of the previous matrix. This is the world of non-linear thinking, where cause-and-effect relations are not obvious or absent. It is a context where future emerges. This is the most challenging for leaders. I was recently sitting in a strategy session led by one of us and saw the impatience to conclude, the anxiety in front of uncertainty, the thirst for something concrete and definite getting in the way of exploration, hypothesis, scenarios, possibilities. For Snowden “Leaders face several challenges in the complex domain.  Of primary concern is the temptation to fall back into traditional command-and-control management styles—to demand fail-safe business plans with defined outcomes. Leaders who don’t recognize that a complex domain requires a more experimental mode of management may become impatient when they don’t seem to be achieving the results they were aiming for. They may also find it difficult to tolerate failure, which is an essential aspect of experimental understanding. If they try to overcontrol the organization, they will preempt the opportunity for informative patterns to emerge. Leaders who try to impose order in a complex context will fail, but those who set the stage, step back a bit, allow patterns to emerge, and determine which ones are desirable will succeed.”
  • Chaotic Contexts (the domain of rapid response): is an interesting add-on from Snowden to our model. This is the context of hardly predictable accidents: 9/11, Eyjafjallajokul volcano irruption or the recent and persisting financial crisis (even though many, rightly so would dispute that this last one was predictable). Such extraordinary circumstances require courage and taking a stand by the leader. Looking for the right answer would amount to “Paralysis by analysis”. Leaders in such situations ought to take a risk and choose an option forward. And many of you, if not all, are in the driving seats of your organizations today because you demonstrated your capacity to do so!

This is a short summary about something much deeper. Our Enablers network sometimes organizes workshops where we explore jointly with some of our clients interested in it, new ways of thinking (R.E.B.T or Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy applied to executive coaching, Advanced forms of scenario planning & future readiness, What is the Open Economy and how to lead in it, Linking the three agendas of Logos, Ethos and Pathos were some of them). Might be worth inviting Dave Snowden or someone of his team and explore, let emerge and co-create together around this theme…

In France and Switzerland this week for important workshop and Convention. Heavy work… Have a great week all and thanks for kinds messages last week!

[1] www.elpnetwork.com

[2] D. J. Snowden & M. E. Boone, “A Leader’s Framework for Decision Making”, HBR November 2007

[3] www.cognitive-edge.com

[4] Report downloadable on http://www.enablersnetwork.com/user/docs/Didier%20Marlier%20on%20the%20Open%20Network%20Economy%20FDC%20CEOs.pdf

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2 Responses to ““Concrete steps to lead in a complex environment Part. II””

  1. Didier,
    An immediate connection I made while reading the above blog was that an organisations sense of ‘purpose’ – as per the video link you posted recently – will give the individuals making decisions for the organisation a ‘guiding light’. My thought is in Complex and Chaotic environments, all you can do is stay true to your own human values, try to keep an eye on your guiding light, and enjoy the ride.


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