Leadership in Complexity

“The temptation to lead as a chess master, controlling each move of the organization, must give way to an approach as a gardener, enabling rather than directing. A gardening approach to leadership is anything but passive.
The leader acts as an “Eyes-On, Hands-Off” enabler who creates and maintains an ecosystem in which the organization operates.” 

― Stanley McChrystal, Team of Teams: New Rules of Engagement for a Complex World 

Today’s Leaders are asked to navigate in complex systems, while most of their technical skill sets enable them for technical, expert style interactions.


Cynefin new

The distinction between complex and complicated domains has become a crucial one in the VUCA world, with a capital C for Complexity. In complicated operating contexts, the connection between cause and effect is knowable. Decision trees of possible outcomes can be identified, risks and probabilities around these outcomes can be calculated, and contingency plans for each path can be predetermined, controlled, and de-risked.

In complex domains, the relationship between cause and effect cannot be predetermined and hindsight doesn’t lead to foresight. Both outcomes themselves and the paths to get there are emergent and cannot be controlled, project managed and de-risked ahead of time.

The Complexity Gap  

According to a report from IBM’s Institute for Business Value, which interviewed more than 1,500 CEOs from companies of all sizes across 60 countries, says that CEOs are confronted with a “complexity gap” that poses a bigger challenge than any factor measured in eight years of CEO research. Eight out of 10 of the CEOs interviewed expect their environment to grow significantly more complex over the next few years, but fewer than half believe they know how to deal with it.

Max Boisot described a “Law of Requisite Complexity” which discusses the need for organisational systems to raise its level of complexity within its organisation to match the level of uncertainty it is facing in the broader business environment. Without this complex adaptivity, it will not be able to maintain its sustainability and relevance. 

Complexity Leadership

There is a growing distinction between leaders – and leadership. Complexity leadership looks as much at the context, the ‘inbetween’ and the relationship dynamics as well as the actions and skills of individual leaders. 

“Whatever leadership used to be — it used to be. Now, it has to be something different. Now, we all have to be more than we were” – Nora Bateson”

Complexity science allows us to develop leadership perspectives that extend beyond bureaucratic assumptions to add a view of leadership as a complex interactive dynamic through which adaptive outcomes emerge. This new perspective, which we label Complexity Leadership Theory, recognizes that leadership is too complex to be described as only the act of an individual or individuals; rather, it is a complex interplay of many interacting forces.

Sensemaking  and Organisational Development 

While we help leaders become “complexity fit” with personal leadership and skill development, we are committed to a ‘realist position’ where we work also with whole systems and culture change, in working with what is, not with what should be. We take a leaf out of Dave Snowden’s book and work with the “evolutionary potential of the present” rather trying to constantly achieve an idealized future state that makes us miss weak signals and opportunities on the way there. We provide means to tap into that vast knowledge and get real time, unbiased, relevant and ongoing data about what is actually happening, into how people make sense of their work.

Scanning the data for weak signals, trends, emergent behavior or detractors, we look at dispositional states to nudge the system into a generative direction. We help creating locally contextualized solutions and architectures for sustainable change and beneficial emergence.

Favorite tool: We work with Dave Snowden’s Cynefin Framework and the Sensemaker® Tools by Cognitive Edge, as Approved Cynefin Trainers. 

We work on closing the complexity gap with matching leadership skills in complexity thinking, collaborative capacity and leadership decision making with the growing complexity of the jobs, especially in international multi-stakeholder work environments. This is capacity building at its finest. To meet these demands we can work strategically on the development of respective skills and knowledge, (2) learn to work closely with others who represent a wide range of perspectives and areas of expertise, and (3) use the best tools available to scaffold their thinking.

We work with the people in whole organizations to tease out what is actually happening for them and probe for the actual, mostly unrecognized and untapped potential for culture change, growth, and emergence.