Leading in Complexity: Pandemic Edition


Several years ago, while reading Jennifer Garvey Berger’s Simple Habits for Complex Times, I was introduced to the distinction between complex and complicated. This distinction gave me new insight into why we often get stuck, frustrated, and overwhelmed by challenges. Being stuck, I realized, is rarely a result of not being smart enough to know the answer. It is, instead, a function of being faced with a challenge that is complex—unpredictable and unknowable—rather than complicated–predictable and ultimately knowable—and not recognizing the difference.

When we treat a complex challenge as if it is a complicated problem, we see our inability to “solve” the problem as being about ourselves and our limitations. The strategies we employ to manage a complex challenge don’t work—and we don’t see that there is a different way to operate. Learning to name whether what we are dealing with is complex or complicated—and responding accordingly—produces dramatically different outcomes.

This distinction gave me a new  way to work with my own challenges and has been transformational in my work as a coach. It’s also made life during COVID a little less stressful than I think it would otherwise have been. In this post I expand on the distinction and then suggest ways that it can support us in this unique and uniquely challenging moment.

The Cynefin Framework

Complex and complicated are two of the five domains in the Cynevin (Kin-e-vin) framework which was developed by Dave Snowden just over twenty years ago and has been evolving since. Cynefin is a Welsh word meaning habitat, suggesting that these are fluid and dynamic rather than rigid domains. Together, they create an eco-system.

The domains move from highly predictable (obvious and then complicated) to unpredictable (complex and then chaotic.) The fifth domain is disorder—which is where we find ourselves when we aren’t intentional or have not yet named the domain. As we move from the most to the least predictable domains, the relationship between cause and effect shifts and what is known and knowable changes. Different practices and different modes of leadership are effective in different domains.

The Obvious Domain

The most predictable domain is the obvious. We sense, categorize, and then respond in repeatable ways. Data entry and simple recipes are good examples of obvious. As are social distancing practices. If we follow the same steps, consistently, we’ll get the same outcome. The relationship between cause and effect is clear. We can establish best practices.

Shifting to Complicated

Building a rocket ship is complicated. Here, we sense, analyze and respond. Expertise and research are often required; there can be many parts and pieces. Still, cause and effect can be identified in advance—even when it takes effort to get there. Plans can be formulated; good practices are identifiable. Financial processes and computer systems are additional examples of things that can be complicated. In the COVID context, guidelines for opening a business safely are mostly complicated—especially as we know more about the disease and how it works.

Operating in Complexity

With complexity we move into the terrain of the unpredictable. Solutions are unknowable in advance.  Cause and effect can be identified only in hindsight.

Parenting is my favorite example of complexity. Children are unpredictable, especially as they grow older, and we are not in control of the outcomes. To the degree that I learned to let go of my pre-conceptions of who my children “should” become and gave them space to emerge as whole humans, the better off we all were. Wanting our kids to be good, decent people—that is a direction and vision. That’s quite different from wanting them to become Harvard graduates—that’s a destination. In complexity directions work, but destinations can get us into trouble. The recent college entrance scandal is a stark example of treating parenting as if it is complicated, rather than complex. It resulted from parents being highly committed to a specific outcome and believing they could, as long as they had the money, control the path to get there.

Human cognition is wired more for complicated than complex, and for that reason we can find ourselves looking back at situations that were complex and believing we (or they) should have known more than was possible to have known, losing site of the essential nature of complexity. Cause and effect were unknowable and the path was never going to be linear. When we accept complexity, we can be kinder to ourselves and to others.

In this time of global pandemic, much of what we are dealing with, from working at home, to navigating the return to schools, to simply managing relationships in a very new context is complex. Recognizing the complexity may not eliminate the stress, but it can create more space for self-acceptance and grace.

Once we name the domain as complex, we can move from problem-solving and planning to navigating. We can create safe-to-fail or safe-to-learn experiments—small, lower risk and frequent experiments or probes that offer us immediate and useful feedback. Some of the things we can experiment with in complexity are slowing down, listening deeply, collaborating more, ensuring that we are bringing in divergent perspectives. In complexity practices are emergent. Our job is to support that emergence.

The Domain of Chaos

In the least predictable domain, chaos, the relationship between cause and effect may be unknowable—even in hindsight. While none of the domains of Cynefin are inherently good or bad, chaos is the domain that we mostly want to avoid. It is often the outcome of natural or man-made disasters. Until recently, chaos was the domain I would spend the least amount of time on when sharing this model. It was primarily a cautionary tale. No longer.

In response to chaos, we need to act quickly, we must stabilize the system. We invent novel practices—because we must. Some of our attempts will fail—and some of those failures will not be safe. In the process, we will identify new practices that we can draw on even after we’ve stabilized and are no longer in the domain of chaos. In that way, chaos can be a time of creativity.

When COVID-19 first hit, leaders at all levels made decisions quickly, for the moment, within the context of what often felt like free fall.  The deeper reflection, the collaboration, the long view, the value of slowing down that are inherent to complexity were temporarily sidelined by the need to quickly assess, reorganize, and repurpose. As we learned more, some of those initial reactions turned out to have been mistakes while others contributed to new ways of thinking about the future.

At the start of the pandemic we saw the use of what complexity theory describes as “blunt instruments” to ensure stabilization. Lock things down, create stringent rules, close borders—you get the idea. It was a necessary first response. As we learn more and recognize where the risks are greater, these approaches are modified and adjusted—we shift back into the domains of complex and complicated—and even obvious.

One more important point about chaos—it can also result from wrongly diagnosing something as simple when it’s complex. For example, assuming there’s a simple Law and Order response to the complex issues of racial injustice and the ensuing protests is an example of a simple response to a complex problem and applying this “simple” response creates the conditions for chaos.

The Leadership Imperative

In the midst of a pandemic and the political and social strife that we are experiencing in the United States, the domains of obvious and complicated are occupying less space than the domains of complexity and what Jennifer Garvey Berger and Keith Johnston call “the edge of chaos.” This is true in our lives, in general, and especially in our lives as leaders.

Navigating complexity requires intentionality and awareness. Otherwise, we risk responding in ways that will be at best ineffective and at worst disastrous. Being intentional about responding to each domain with the appropriate tools or strategies is essential for producing desirable and productive outcomes.

Leaders can support the people they lead by helping them to better understand the nature of the moment—giving them the language to make sense of what they are experiencing.  Helping people to understand the nature of the challenges we are facing can be both supportive and empowering.

Garvey Berger and Johnston write that leaders at the edge of chaos need to be highly attuned to human response—connecting at a human level, understanding the many different responses we have to chaos and supporting people with a range of responses—from those who are more at ease and those who experience anxiety and desperation.

What this means is that we, as leaders, may need to get more involved than we are used to with the personal lives of the people we work with. Listening more, checking in more, encouraging our teams to prioritize self-care are some of the things we can do. Making sure that your team members are taking time to recharge and access their resiliency becomes part of our jobs. In this time, the lines between the professional and the personal may feel blurred—I believe that as leaders we can and should embrace that.

My fervent hope is that we will use what we are learning now to move us forward in new and different ways. The issues we are facing as a planet are inherently complex. The more that we clearly name the complexity, we create the possibility of addressing systemic issues such as climate change and racial injustice, as well as the immediate challenges posed by a global pandemic. My hope is that we can make meaningful shifts that genuinely improve our lives.

Digging Deeper

For a brief introduction to Cynefin, I recommend this four-minute video. As a bonus, you get to “meet” Jennifer Garvey Berger.

Dave Snowden and his co-author Mary Boone in a 2007 Harvard Business Review article  introduced the Cynefin framework.Dave Snowden’s and Sonja Blignaut’s blogs are two of my go-to resources to stay up-to-date about how the framework is evolving and being applied.

Leading in the Time of Coronavirus

To say that this is an unsettling time is an understatement. Having been in Jerusalem during the first Gulf War, I am noting sensations I’ve experienced before. For me, doing what we need to do to address Coronavirus has the sense of being on wartime footing. Especially in this moment–not knowing what to do and what not to do–and beginning to absorb the significance of what we are collectively being asked not to do for the greater good. My mother-in-law describes wartime England–and the long period of hunkering down. And, it is all happening so quickly, only increasing the uncertainty.

So, what do we do?

First, we remember that this is a moment in time and it’s not permanent. I am grateful for the lessons I’ve learned from my Buddhist teachers about impermanence. What they offered me was the understanding that for impermanence to be meaningful and helpful, it needs to be more than a thought or mental concept. I would suggest that you stop, several times a day, and drop in to what you are sensing. Notice the tension, the anxiety, the fear. Be with it and let it be. Giving those sensations space and allowing them to run through you (without the stories) is a way to a more peaceful (at least for a little while) state. Every time we do this practice we experience just a little bit of that impermanence–feeling a little better in the moment and reminded that this moment will not last forever. Research suggests that it takes about 90 seconds for the sensations and the emotions behind them to run through us (when we avoid rumination and piling on the stories.) These days I am finding it’s take a little longer to get out of my head when I do this practice–and am working to accept that as well.

Working With the Polarities That Are Arising

Polarity thinking is one of the tools that I draw on–and this time is replete with polarities. It’s a time when we can get caught in either/or thinking–so seeking the both/and can be a powerful practice. Here are a few of the polarities I’ve been working with:

I’m challenged to BOTH stay informed AND create distance from the information. Each are important and each needs to be attended to.

We are all confronted with the polarity of Distance AND Connection. Are you calling people? Checking in with them? Picking up your phone and dialing (no appointment, not a text…a  phone call.) If you can step outside and walk and see and wave and say hello to people, are you doing that? Are you allowing more time than usual for check-ins in your virtual meetings? Finding out how people are (really) doing?

One idea I found in Deborah Preuss’s Twitter feed (yes, Twitter can actually be a resource!) was to create virtual co-working. Her suggestion: “Open a zoom call with friends. Set a co-working timebox. Set (personal) goals. Start timer. Turn off all audio/video (or use individual breakout rooms) Work, work, work. Check back in at end of time. Take a coffee break together. Repeat.”

And another polarity: Taking care of self AND Taking care of others. Even if you are scared about the economy and what this will mean for you–how can you give to others right now? Who can you donate to? What can you do to support someone who you know needs support (a phone call, a note)? Not only is it a good thing to do, it’s good for us–there’s a wealth of research that shows that. And, are you caring for yourself? Remember, we need both and will not be able to care for others if we don’t care for ourselves.

Last, but not least, consider, as a leader, how you live in the polarity of realism AND optimism? Think about the people who are doing that for you, and look closely at the way that are showing up, the way they are balancing that message. For me, Anthony Fauci has been a model. I like watching him to see how he is able to deliver a sometimes sobering message and remind us that we have power and that this will pass. Getting that right creates a much-needed authenticity. It allows us to be both vulnerable about what we are experiencing and aware that we have a role in helping people stay grounded and calm.

These are just a few examples. Holding the mindset of polarity thinking and simply knowing that there can be an AND is a way to navigate this moment that I find particularly helpful.

A Few Resources

First, in the spirit of staying informed. This is a podcast that helped me to understand the Coronavirus better and why, from a medical and epidemiological point of view. It breaks down some of the myths I’ve been suspicious of and adds some of the information I’ve been seeking. Michael Osterholm, a highly respected epidemiologist who has a broad and deep view of our situation is on the Joe Rogan  show.

Second, in the spirit of creating distance from the information, Tara Brach’s meditations are a generous gift from a talented meditation teacher. I listened to this one this morning and it seemed just perfect. Starting your day with some type of reflection or meditation is something that can radically shift how you “be” in this time. Tara offers meditations that are both shorter and longer.

Third: Since it launched about eleven  years ago, Glo has been my go-to resource for online Yoga. Over the years they’ve expanded the styles they offer, included meditation, extended to Pilates. The teachers are exceptional and the range of duration, intensity, level, etc., extraordinary. They have a great search engine. The monthly fee is less than most single yoga classes.  If you’re stuck at home and needing a way to practice, I can’t say enough good things. (And I am not getting a commission!)

Please take good care of yourself and those you love.

The Problem with Problem-Solving

What is here now, when there is no problem to solve? Loch Kelly

Recently I’ve begun my morning meditation by asking myself this question, offered by Loch Kelly in a three-minute practice . It’s had a dramatic effect on my ability to “drop in”—to let go of the noise and chatter in my head. Simply asking the question allows me to “arrive,” almost magically, as I begin my morning meditation. And, when the chatter ramps up, as it is wont to do, I ask the question again and, again, the noise subsides.

While this one question may have different effects on everyone who tries the practice, its power has helped me to become more aware of how deeply we are wired to be problem-solvers and how that limits us in an increasingly complex world.

When I work with leaders, especially when our focus is on becoming better coaches, the single hardest thing for most of them is to step back from immediately fixing or problem-solving. Developing the capacity to listen without fixing is a continuous, intentional practice. It is not surprising to me that this is the case. After more than twelve years of working as a coach it still requires intention for me—and I can still be pulled into fixing mode.

Here’s the thing. Being problem-solvers got us far, as individuals and as a species. Being told you’re a good problem-solver is a compliment and knowing you’ve figured something out can make you feel pretty good about yourself. We can resolve things, move projects forward, help people. It’s what we’ve spent most of our lives being trained to do and to be. What could be bad about that?

To answer that question, I want to draw on a critical distinction—the difference between complicated and complex. Operating in complexity means we’re in the terrain of the unpredictable. Solutions are emergent; we navigate and experiment our way towards them and things are likely to shift as we go along. Complicated means we are traveling more “plannable” and predictable territory—and problem-solving can be exactly the right approach. In our VUCA (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous) reality, more and more of what we face as leaders and what the people around us are facing falls into the domain of complexity.

When I share this distinction with my clients (which I almost always do—it’s that useful,) the most profound moment is often when they truly get that, in complexity, problems can’t be “solved” and that much of their time as leaders is spent in the complex domain. Realizing that our problem-solving brains can become an obstacle to thriving—and potentially even to surviving (more on that later) can be both liberating and terrifying. It’s freeing to know you’re not supposed to have the answer—in fact, you can’t. And, at the same time, it can be terrifying to realize that you need new ways of dealing with the challenges you face. If complexity means that the problem-solving mind I’ve cultivated for my whole life is not what I need to thrive in this new reality, what happens next? Going a level deeper still, the question becomes “Who am I?” since, for many of us, our identity is grounded in our skills as problem-solvers.

Back to my morning meditation. The moment when I ask myself the question “What is here when there is no problem to solve?” is the beginning of the answer to both the question of what to do next and the question of who I am. I relax into a sense of expansiveness, spaciousness. I can become more patient with not knowing. Once I can allow myself to not know, I am able to listen and to be present—to myself, to my family and to my clients. I don’t try to “solve” my problems or jump in with solutions to theirs. I know that we can navigate this together. I can ask a question that allows me to operate in complexity with greater ease: “What’s next?”

My coach training was led by Doug Silsbee, whose final book was Presence-Based Leadership. (For more on Doug and his work, here’s my tribute to him.) Doug’s claim was that Presence is the meta-capacity of leadership. I find myself re-arriving at this conclusion over and over in my work with leaders. I also realize that presence requires training and continued practice. As Doug suggested, throughout his body of work, the path towards being comfortable with not knowing and being able to genuinely thrive in complexity is through Presence.

This is why my work continues to focus on supporting my clients as they develop the capacity to be present—and continuing to develop this capacity in myself. It’s also why I spent the last year studying to be a somatic coach, working with embodiment. The work required to embrace complexity, to be present, to genuinely release the belief that we should have all the answers to all problems, is not exclusively head learning. Left to their own devices, our heads will continue to engage with problems as we’ve been taught in school and at work throughout our lives. To change a habit this deep, we need to access and re-train our whole self.

We can recognize the sensations we feel, the shapes our bodies assume, the thoughts we have when we are gearing up for conventional problem-solving. And we can learn to pause and, decide if that way of being fits the situation we’re in—and, if not, we can learn to shift. We can take a breath, note the sense of urgency, acknowledge it, shift the way we are holding our body, and respond differently. We are not forcing ourselves to shift, we’re noticing one pattern and choosing a different one. We can genuinely appreciate—and draw on—our problem-solving minds and bodies when they are what’s needed and choose a different way of being when we are facing complexity.

As Amanda Blake, another teacher and coach whose work is grounded in embodiment says: “Awareness creates choice; practice creates capacity.” The more we practice this shift, the more available it becomes to us, until, after perhaps thousands of repetitions, it becomes the way we are in the world. Luckily, we have lots of opportunities to practice!

The challenges we are collectively facing are profound and highly complex. I believe that learning to shift from problem-solving to being truly present in the complexity of those challenges is critical capacity for our society and world. For me, the kind of practice and awareness I’ve described here is the most accessible, though not necessarily easy, path towards presence—and with it surviving and even thriving in the complexity that surrounds us.