Operationalising complexity for leading

Image attribution: #barpreplife: One Point https://www.barexambrief.com/barpreplife-one-point

In my last blog post, I noted that, if we take a complex systems view of leading, then much of what we currently offer for leadership development may be obsolete. I closed that post with some questions:

  • Are you developing your leaders for working in complex adaptive organisations or training them the same way you always have with a change in terminology and expecting different results?
  • How are you helping your leaders to get out of the way?

This post builds on the previous one by proposing answers to these questions.

The slippery nature of adopting complexity approaches for leadership was brought home powerfully to me a few weeks ago by a student in my Leading Learning class. This student kept asking me again and again “But what do we DO with all of this?”. I can’t blame him. He has spent his career working in large corporations and was frustrated at the lack of concrete answers he was getting. He wanted to know exactly which skills his leaders needed and how to deliver the training. I can appreciate his perspective and he’s not the first student to ask me to operationalise these concepts. For most of my career that’s how I’ve approached leadership development programs too. A set of skills or “leadership behaviours” that we train. We might use some innovative teaching and learning methods to be sure, but it’s still a behavioural approach to leadership development.

Adopting a complexity approach asks us to move away from behavioural approaches as a set of static leadership behaviours is insufficient to deal with the flux and change of the contemporary workplace. But what do we do if we don’t train leaders how to be leaders?

After much reflection and reading on the topic, my answer is this – leaders don’t need skills. They need a mindset shift accompanied by theoretical and analytical tools. What if complexity was not adopted merely as part of a “traditional” leadership program but was a instead taught to leaders as a set of theoretical and analytical tools which they could use to gather data about their context and make more effective decisions.

In my (as yet) imaginary program, leaders would be encouraged to read and reflect. They would be challenged with discussions about the nature of their work and how a leader is just a part of a far larger system. The leaders would be encouraged to see themselves as part of something bigger and their traditional western notions of the “leader as saviour” would be challenged. In short, they would be given tools to look at their own practice and situate it more broadly within a system. Leaders would learn as opposed to be trained. The “leader” would be decentralised from their rarified spot at the centre of the process and discussions of “leadership” as something static that can be learned would be sidelined in favour of reflection on leader’s day-to-day practices and those of the people whom they “lead”. Taking a complexity approach requires that leading is a continuous process which adapts to emergence and operates within multiple highly networked and overlapping contexts. Leaders need a mindset shift to see themselves as part of multiple systems, contexts, and relationships rather than as responsible for planning and controlling from on high. Leaders need to be shown how to get out of the way and encouraged to think of themselves as part of the action rather than overseeing it.

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Leading complexity

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Image attribution: www.futureatlas.com

Over the past few weeks I’ve been fortunate to have discussions with passionate people across a few different organisations who are working to re-conceptualise leadership. These people have recognised, as many of us have, that the standard paradigms for many things – leadership being one of them – are no longer suitable or sufficient for understanding the world of flux and change we now inhabit. I spoke to people from quite disparate organisations but they all faced similar challenges where their leaders increasingly operate in complex, interconnected contexts and need new skills and knowledge to be successful. The organisations were increasingly frustrated at their traditional approaches to leadership as not being flexible enough and they were interested in the ideas that complexity approaches can offer in the leadership space. That’s how I came along. Since complexity is my thing, I was asked to think about how we might re-design their strategy and approaches to learning for leaders which are based on complexity approaches.

I hear this from a lot of organisations I work with – the 21st century is complex and we therefore need to look adopt complexity approaches. I think this is true but it is important to unpack what we mean by complexity as it can often confuse as both an adjective (“Our organisation is very complex”) and as a suite of theoretical and analytical tools and approaches (such as complex systems, complex adaptive systems, chaos theory, systems theory, complex adaptive organisations). Here I’ll briefly unpack what I mean by complexity approaches and then go on to discuss how they apply to leadership.

What is complexity?

Complexity, as a term, refers to a very broad church as there are a range of theories and approaches that fall under the banner of “complexity”. It includes areas such as complex systems, complex adaptive systems, cybernetics, chaos theory, and systems theory. There are lots of branches in the complexity family tree but the one that I tend to deal with in my work is a specific type of system called a complex adaptive system. 

A key assumption of complexity approaches is that complex systems adapt. Both the agents and the system change their behaviours to increase their chances of success or survival, usually through learning or adaptation. When a complex system contains agents that seek to adapt, these are called complex adaptive systems. Complex adaptive systems contain agents that respond to external and internal inputs by adapting, forming and changing their strategies for working within systems. From this perspective, it is assumed that these systems learn. In my research work, I’ve developed a framework to better apply the concept of complex adaptive systems in organisations which I term complex adaptive organisations (Lizier, 2017). The framework I developed proposes that there are four key elements of complex adaptive organisations: emergence, adaptation, complex social networks, and agency.

What does that mean for leadership?

If we assume that organisations are complex adaptive organisations, that has interesting implications for leadership. Chief among the questions is: in a complex adaptive organisation why do we need leaders? Why bother leading? In a context which is shifting and changing, where people work through networks dealing with what emerges through the interactions of the system and the people how can one possibly lead? The short answer is…you can’t.

Before you get worked up about the need for strong leadership development in organisations and how wonderful your leadership development programs are, let me explain. Complex adaptive systems are subject not only to emergence but to a phenomenon called self-organisation. This means that the people tend to self-organise towards goals. These might not necessarily be organisational goals, but the tendency is for the system to self-organise overall. In that case, traditional leadership approaches are definitely not the way to go, something that I think most learning practitioners would perhaps admit. We’ve all seen how our traditional, behavioural and situational, approaches to leadership are no longer flexible enough for contemporary organisational contexts (if indeed they ever were). To use complexity as a meaningful approach to leadership requires a significant paradigm shift away from traditional approaches to leadership which take a behavioural approach, towards something different. To date, most leadership training has been behavioural or situational in focus where we look at leaders who were successful and then we train everybody with the same behaviours.

I don’t necessarily have all of  the answers yet but I think that the questions raised are critical for organisations, leaders, and learning practitioners. For many years leadership development has been our bread and butter but…what if we’re…wrong? What if we’ve been doing same-old, same-old for so long that we haven’t really, truly, hand on heart, tried to shake it all up a bit? Are you developing your leaders for working in complex adaptive organisations or training them the same way you always have with a change in terminology and expecting different results? How are you helping your leaders to get out of the way?

Leadership lessons from rioters?

Only having one english TV channel here in Germany can be both a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, I am more aware than ever of current events thanks to the tireless work of BBC World. On the other hand one can hear too much bad news in the world. One story that I’m sure everyone is aware of lately is the riots in London. A lot has been written and reported about this already and I have no intention of being yet another amateur pundit but I have some thoughts on the nature of leadership and crowds.

The behaviour of groups is something close to my heart in my area of complexity research. In nature ants build colonies, bees swarm and birds flock. In human social systems similar mechanisms also apply. People can come together rapidly for a common purpose and disband just as rapidly. Such was the case in the London riots. Many people were surprised at the ability of so many people to organise so quickly to do such terrible things. The internet has indeed opened a Pandora’s box or organising. The London riots are an example of social networking used for “evil” as it were. The so-called “Arab Spring” in the Middle East is an example of social networking being used for “good” to organised against oppressive governments.

The things that these groups have in common is no real central leadership. This is interesting from an organisational point of view. In organisations we make a lot of noise about leadership and how it is demonstrated and experienced within the organisation but do we need it? Assuming that we still need it (and I think there is still a place for some styles of leadership) how does it need to change to take into account the tendency of humans to self-organise and build networks?

Current theories of leadership often fail to take this into account. Many theories of leadership, and indeed leadership education in general, still take the old-fashioned mechanistic view of an organisation with its quasi-military hierarchy. For all the talk of flattening organisations we haven’t really come far in real terms. The events of the past year in the world show how people from very disparate backgrounds can organise themselves for a common goal using physical and technological networks. This happens in organisations every day but if often missed by the powers-that-be. The question is, how can we harness this to be more effective as leaders and as organisations? I wish I had the answer!