Leading in Uncertainty; Using Language to Solve Complex Problems

Leading in government has never been easy, but in recent years the level of complexity faced by leaders in large organizations has mushroomed. What worked in the past – our best practices, our expertise, our rigorous project management – no longer seems to be enough to manage the challenges we face. What’s more, even the language to describe what we are facing seems inadequate to capture the experience.

Getting the Language Right

One of the first steps in complex problem solving is finding adequate language and models to describe the terrain.

Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, Ambiguous (VUCA)

VUCA is not a new phrase as these things go. It first appeared in our lexicon in the late 1980s to describe the conditions resulting from the end of the Cold War. But for most of us, VUCA has become “code” for something else. Wicked challenges. Unresolvable problems. Energy depletion. While VUCA has become a helpful descriptor, it is not that helpful in diagnosing or moving to problem-solving.

Adaptive Leadership

The work of Ron Heitz and Marty Linsky in Adaptive Leadership is a well-known and useful model. Volumes have been written on the application of this model and many leaders are already proficient with the language of adaptive change.

Cynefin Framework

Another helpful and lesser-known approach to defining and engaging in complex problem-solving is the Cynefin Framework. Cynefin is a Welsh word pronounced as “kin-ev-in.” It breaks challenges into four levels of “difficulty.”

In simple problems, you can easily identify the relationship between cause and effect. For example, if we notice that our agency’s new hires are failing to thrive six to 12 months into their new assignments,  we might trace the cause of this problem to a gap in our hiring process or even poor communication about entry-level requirements.

These are the types of challenges most government leaders cut their teeth on – the ones we know how to solve. These challenges eventually succumb to rigorously applied expertise, good process and best practices.

In complicated problems, the relationship between cause and effect might be less clear. For example, a project manager might notice that the transition to the cloud might be taking longer than the project plan anticipated. There may be dozens of factors contributing to the delay and multiple points of intervention required.

The ability to manage these challenges successfully are career builders. They call on leaders to bring their experience, judgment and good sense to bear. The best leaders we know in government got there because of their ability to solve these problems.

Complex problems can become serious career speed bumps. The true cause of the problem is nearly impossible to observe in the midst of the challenge. In fact, causes are often repeatedly misdiagnosed. These are almost always adaptive challenges. Addressing them requires experimentation and they are rarely “solved” – only improved.

Complex problems may be rooted in social issues like racism, gender equality and show up in our organizations in unexpected ways.

Chaotic problems have an unpredictable path to resolution. The role of the leader is less problem solving and more establishing order and stability. In this environment, a leader must move beyond expertise to something along the lines of instinct.

Leaders who are able to lead through chaos leverage learning from years of experience,  add a strong sense of gut-level good sense, and move quickly to action.

Beyond Expertise

Most leaders become masters of the first two types of challenges (simple and complicated)  in order to move through the executive ranks. But these same leaders can be forgiven for becoming frustrated when the chaotic and complex are “immune” to the approaches that were successful in the past.

These problems are resistant to expertise, experience and strength of character. They won’t be overcome by expert project management skills or portfolio management. They require something beyond skill. To quote Professor Irene Ng, “We can determine complicated outcomes, we can only enable or intervene in complex ones.”

As a coach, the most interesting conversations unfold when clients find themselves in the terrain of complexity. This is where leadership development conversations become compelling. It is when challenges force leaders to move beyond what they know, and what they do, to bring their whole selves to problem-solving.

In this space, leaders must challenge not only their habitual ways of leading but even the way they think about leadership. The focus changes from effective strategies and organizational management to deep relationship building and the re-development of cultures.

Leading in complexity requires leaders to have a strong sense of self-awareness as well as massive amounts of humility and resilience. It’s not for the faint of heart. And it’s the leadership our world is most in need of now.

If you are interested in leading in complexity you should check out the work of Jennifer Garvey Berger Changing on the Job, Heifetz and Linsky’s The Practice of Adaptive Leadership, and Robert Kegan’s  In Over Our Heads.

Loretta Cooper is a Senior Consultant at Wheelhouse Group. She is an ICF Certified Executive and Team Coach (PCC) and an accomplished consulting professional with more than 12 years of private and public sector experience. Loretta comes to consulting after nearly two decades in network broadcasting. As an award-winning, Washington-based, National Affairs Correspondent for ABC News, Loretta (aka Lauren Rogers) had the opportunity to observe leaders in every sphere of influence – political, government, corporate, activist – and learn from their strategy successes and failures. She is married, the mother to two fabulous young men (just ask!), and enjoys long walks, jet skis, good books, and knitting.

Leave a Comment

Leave a comment

Leave a Reply