Leading in an uncertain world

[This is more or less a re-print of an article I wrote some time ago for a local business magazine that I thought people might find interesting.]

Every day I have the luxury of engaging with really bright people, and for someone whose personal style is a “learner,” that makes life fun. In particular. I’ve learned a lot from colleagues who study climate change. and I have a theory about them. In the course of their work. they accrue an essential byproduct: adaptive thinking. Likely without even knowing it. the application of adaptive principles to a really big issue like climate change causes them to embody the very adaptive principles they’re attempting to employ.

Why is this important’? We know the world is becoming increasingly complex and integrated. Thomas Homer-Dixon refers to this integration as “tight coupling” and writes widely about its downsides (less flexibility and lower resiliency in systems). Industrial-age approaches (linear “efficiency” models) that influenced management and leadership theory, knowledge management, and economics, to name but a few now seem to be giving way in a revisionary period to new ideas. This transition is largely being driven by what we’re learning about adaptation–an essential component of our response to increasing uncertainty.

You’ve heard about the butterfly in the Amazon that sets off a tornado in Texas? This reflects a characteristic of complex systems-sensitivity to initial conditions-and it can have huge effects in a system. And so an increasing quorum of theorists and practitioners are helping us leverage what we’re learning about adaptation and complexity. so we can act successfully.

Recent events in Egypt, Syria and the like are good examples of complex systems. For example, events from several years ago in Egypt appear to be traceable, at least in part. to a Facebook site that coordinated the first march in Cairo on Jan. 25. That such action on a Facebook site could have this sort of effect is astounding, or it would have been just a few short years ago.

However. you don’t have to look far afield to find complex systems at work. Most human systems are complex. If you work in HR. the public sector. or the media. for example. you deal largely with complex systems. If you hold a leadership position in your organization, much of your work requires managing in conditions of complexity. Have you ever experienced a process or practice that persists even though people know it doesn’t work? Usually this is a result of a complex system being managed as an ordered one.

I’m not suggesting that we discard all we have learned about leadership and management over the last century. Traditional management practices are still valuable under certain conditions. But we need to recognize that their application is largely bounded within ordered systems. We need to acknowledge that there are other systems at work in our environment-complex adaptive systems-and that they are resistant to cause-and-effect thinking. So how can we like our climate change friends act adaptively? Here are a few ideas, adapted from the work of Darren Swanson (among others):

* Undertake Integrated forward-looking analysis. Move from a predictive” to an adaptive perspective.

* Strive for continuous learning. Nurture an organizational thirst for knowledge and understanding.

* Enable self-organization and social networking. Allow space for emergent activity.

* Decentralize decision making. Where it makes sense, leverage the wisdom of the crowd.

* Promote variation. Diversity is an essential element of emergence and innovation.

The paradox of acting on these observations of adaptation and complexity is that you must do so within traditional linear organizational structures. While I’m certain this is possible, it’s also helpful to recognize such action as just the first step on a much longer journey.

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Mark Addleson


This is right on the money. It’s not just a changed, interconnected world that demands these qualities in leaders. Work has changed. Our thinking about work and how you organize or manage it originated in the industrial era on production lines. Doing good knowledge-work, which is networked, creative, and collaborative and has nothing in common with factory-work, takes adaptability and agility, because this is how humans handle uncertainty. This is a major reason why we’re struggling with both hierarchy and bureaucracy. We can learn a lot about how to organize knowledge-work, from agile programming and the lesson is that the qualities you highlight aren’t and shouldn’t be reserved for leaders. They’re integral to ‘doing a good job’, which means rethinking management (organizing) as well as leadership. I’ve written about all this in Beyond Management (and in my blog, ‘Management is Dead’). This story and the issues are just as relevant for government organizations as businesses and non-profits. We’re all knowledge workers now!

Ray MacNeil

Thanks Mark,

You mention Agile. While we can learn from those in that field, it is also true that many of the ‘complexity’ folks are contributing to the Agile community as well. Fro example, someone we work with, Dave Snowden, spends a lot of time in the agile community.

The issue of what knowledge work should look like is pretty important I think.We’re certainly not there yet, as you point out. And for some, reality will be like jumping off a cliff because of the risk involved in changing. That’s why it may take a while…. until we have exhausted all other options perhaps.

A noted Canadian scholar, Thomas Homer Dixon talks about moving from the machine metaphor that you mention, to the ecology metaphor. Again, I think that’s tricky for lots of people who are comfortable in the ordered world.