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.