Winter of complexity demands a ‘surfing’ approach to leadership – Working Voices

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Lately, we’ve pretty much got our heads around a few things – we know that times are unprecedented, normal is new and that these moments are historic. They are also intensely complicated. Complex situations at home and at work can make our working day pretty tough and tiring. Sometimes, the complexity is daunting! In my training sessions on Leading for Complexity, I support teams and leaders navigating intensely difficult situations. I believe we can bring these skills into our daily lives and use them to restore a much-needed sense of control.

Communication these days seems to be convoluted. Cohesion within teams at work, and families at home, is sometimes difficult – perhaps because we are not getting our normal interpersonal nourishment. Complex issues like these are sometimes referred to as ‘wicked messes’ because they are hard to pin down to a single cause. The complexity is not always well understood, not least because there is no single view of the problem, instead only multiple opinions and perspectives. Nevertheless, solutions lie in leadership and self-management.

A friend posted a reference on LinkedIn, comparing traditional leadership to hiking, and leadership in these difficult times to surfing. The reference to hiking regards leadership as making steady progress towards a destination, where you plot a path and set off with passion and energy towards your goal. Along the way you lead from the front and energise those you are bringing with you.

In the surfing analogy, things aren’t as simple. In a state of flux, such as we face now, steady progress is broken up by difficulties and challenges that come one after another, like waves, threatening to overwhelm us. We can either submerge beneath them or find a way of riding with them – much like a surfer – nimbly diverging from our path, using agility and balance to keep our head above water, always going with the force of circumstances, riding the problem rather than fighting against it. Agility comes in different forms. In particular, three responses to complex circumstances are helpful to remember when dealing with the demands of daily life.

Managing complexity 1: breaking the problem down

In dealing with complex variables, we can break big questions down into simpler issues that are easier to solve. These can be farmed out to teams, each focusing on a separate piece of the puzzle. This bottom-up processing takes the pressure off key individuals who would otherwise be expected to resolve the whole question, leading to over-dependence on a small number of people, raising their stress levels and diluting consensus.

Big businesses have departments already entrusted to specific issues – customer/client relations, finance, HR, business continuity, legal, IT and so on. Between them, these departments are experienced and skilled in tackling a range of issues. In smaller teams, families even, it makes sense to follow suit – where you can – breaking the issue down into smaller parts and giving them to those best-equipped to take on a particular part of the problem.

Managing complexity 2: taking the outside view

In a crisis, it’s easy to feel fearful. When the roof’s falling in, we automatically switch into a response driven by emotions rather than logic. This leads to immediate reactions such as why is this happening to us, what does this mean, how do we find a way out, what am I supposed to do? Although these internal questions are a natural reaction to danger, they aren’t always helpful. Internal emotions, taking over the bigger picture, may make it harder for us to work though solutions or see a wider timescale or focus on future action.

The alternative is to adopt a broader, ‘outside’ view of the situation. We might begin by asking whether there is a track record or previous solution that may suggest a way through? For example, this year has brought a series of scary and unexpected things all at once. But in taking an outside view, it’s easier to remember that there have been epidemics before, there have been recessions and there have been sudden changes to our lives. If you look at such examples with compassionate but logical, evidence-based eyes you may see that you have the resources to cope. Recessions are extremely disturbing, yet we know from past experience there are always things we can do to recover, rebuild, rethink and protect.

Managing complexity 3: looking for trends

When we slip into an internal view of a problem, it is difficult to spot external, subtle signals of the direction of travel. We panic and think we cannot foresee anything going right. By looking for signals and suggestions, even hints of where things are heading, then you can face reality with open eyes.

Trying to predict what will happen isn’t always easy, yet there are often indicators of trends. As an example, when the video rental company Blockbuster was riding high it was dominant in the industry. It had everything – big marketing budget, strong retail presence, customers aplenty (of which I was one).  But there were two flaws they didn’t address in time. Firstly, a large part of their revenue model was taken from penalising their customers through late-return fees. Secondly, the executive team dismissed an offer from Netflix CEO, Reed Hastings – foolish with hindsight, but probably logical at the time, given their market dominance.

After realising that customers didn’t want to be charged late fees and that a digital library was going to be the future, their CEO John Antioco proposed a $400million change in direction. This involved a $200million hit to their revenue by dropping late fees, and a $200million investment in a digital library. The board rejected the short-term hit to their profitability, so they sacked Antioco –and then later went into bankruptcy. Netflix is now a $34billion company.

Spotting early indicators can help you prepare for possible outcomes. A friend of mine recently talked about the horrendous stress he is under at work. His employer has to reduce headcount in leadership by 45%, he has to produce work under challenging conditions and feels he has to do what he can to hold on to his job. This is a great deal of stress to have on one’s shoulders. Yet when I asked about his option B I was surprised by the response: “To be honest, not really thinking about it, just wait and see what happens.”  I had to sit him down and have a tough conversation with him; at the very least he should be thinking about five possible scenarios, then three most likely outcomes based on current evidence, and importantly the outcome that he would most want.

This internal response to huge stress is normal, but a better reaction may be to assess possible, likely, and aspirational scenarios. This avoids the feeling of shock that comes with surprises – and it allows you to plan for, and try to achieve, your most desired outcome. Not everything is within our control. But in managing a complex situation such as this, we need not feel powerless. In taking a careful look at what’s happening, there are usually proactive things we can do to stay standing on the surfboard and stay out of deep water.

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