Navigating Complexity

Clear strategy and leadership solutionsWhat is the difference between complicated and complex? And why should you care? I recently finished reading Jennifer Garvey Berger and Keith Johnston’s new book, Simple Habits for Complex Time. The authors suggest a rich and important distinction between the two–and a powerful case for why it does matter. (You can find the book here or read my latest actionable book summary here.)

Complicated can be solved. Even if that solution has a lot of steps and is difficult to figure out–there is a path from A to Z. And, there’s a high probability that if you follow the path from A to Z, you’ll get there. Complex, on the other hand, has no clear destination–we’re not actually sure what the solution or outcome is, there’s no “ideal future state”–instead, there is probably more than one solution or maybe none at all. So, the things consultants typically do–like define current state and future state and map the path to get there (sound familiar?) can be woefully inadequate. If “there” can’t really be defined–and there are lots of different possible “theres”–then our entire process is flawed. And, our continued lack of success in effecting lasting change–because we are using processes that support the complicated when we are working with the complex–suddenly makes sense.

So, what do you when what you’re facing is a complex challenge–not a complicated one? When you know a culture needs to shift, when an organization is off track, when there’s unrealized potential, when there’s a new opportunity? Here’s where it gets really exciting–and in strange way–quite a bit easier. You experiment. You try things and see what works. You conduct multiple experiments. You fail at some, succeed at others. You make sure that you don’t fail at the stuff you just can’t fail at, but only where it’s “safe to fail.” You build on your successful experiments. You listen, deeply, to feedback. You navigate towards  your direction–but you let the destination emerge. And, you have a sense of direction to guide you, your values to support you.

As I thought more about complexity, I realized that the biggest, longest-lasting and most challenging “project” of my life–raising two children–fits the definition of complex perfectly–and offers up some insight into the work of navigating complexity. We raise children with absolute uncertainty about the destination and a huge amount of possibility. We have a vision and set of values that guide us in setting a direction that we hope will help them to emerge as whole, healthy and happy people. There’s no blueprint, there’s no plan–indeed anyone who has seen a child into adulthood would certainly laugh at that thought!

As I think about what my husband and I did as parents, I realize that the lens of navigation and experimentation is perfectly descriptive. We didn’t know what to do, so we tried different things–or let our children try different things. We were very clear about boundaries–and what was not to be tried (that electric socket was not a toy, but the kitchen pots could be–even if there was a terrible mess to clean up afterwards!) Growing up–and raising children–was a process of safe to fail experiments. And, how I defined safe to fail was specific to me and often needed to be navigated with my husband, and as they grew up, with my children.

As I work with clients now–individually and with groups–and I as build my business–I am experimenting with this idea of safe to fail experiments–grounded in a vision and direction and a set of core values that serve as boundaries and guardrails. I already am experiencing a sense of possibility that my more traditional tools didn’t bring–a playfulness, a lightness and a sense of hope. I am enjoying actively acknowledging and navigating complexity. I look forward to seeing what emerges!