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strategy & sustainability

leadership & engagement

culture & change

It's complicated. Get used to it.

Posted Tuesday, 11 February 2014 by Sarah Cayrafourcq in culture & change, leadership & engagement

Complexity is an emotional business you can’t afford to ignore. Sarah Cayrafourcq explains.

Here’s an unwelcome thought: most organizations today, including yours, are subject to complex, chaotic changes beyond their control. Whether you’re seeking to foster growth in new markets, capitalize on interdependent networks, achieve operational dexterity, or simply survive restructuring, a capacity to manage complexity is imperative. It’s also a psychological skill that’s vital to sustainable leadership in these “post-normal” times.

The seductions of simplicity

This thought struck me with renewed force recently, while standing in a queue at London City Airport, where I found myself gazing at an ad for a global financial services firm. It was an intimidating photograph on a huge expanse of backlit Perspex, showing what appeared to be a bewildering tissue of winding and intersecting roads, heading off in all directions. The caption pushed a depressingly familiar and reductive message: “A complex market demands a simple solution.”

Really? The notion that effortless logic (or elegant simplicity, to be kinder to the financial services firm) might be the answer to complex business challenges was an appealing, if not very credible, value proposition. I stood there staring at the ad, trying to imagine an operating environment in which complexity can be magicked away with simple solutions. That’s not the world our clients inhabit, I thought. Our clients are leaders who are experiencing unremitting, turbulent changes in both their internal and external ecosystems, unlike any they’ve ever seen before. They know better than to expect the quick-fix solutions peddled by service providers who underestimate both the scale of the problems ahead and the intelligence of the clients they serve.

blog - complexity - teal leaf veinsIn recent years the devastating financial crisis, a gathering global recession, and the resulting intellectual bankruptcy of economics itself have challenged cherished assumptions about the control and certainty that scientific management can offer. Corporate strategists are struggling to make sense of the logical consequences of globalization and the collapse of free market capitalism as we know it. At the same time, people are anxious about the environment, climate change and proliferating food and energy crises. Many are questioning the sustainability of enterprise and innovation, as well as of progress, profit and prosperity. This perfect storm is the world in which our clients are trying to do business.

Managing the interplay of these complex forces is a major task for organizational leaders. The ostensibly rational (but, in a deeper sense, fundamentally unthinking) response to complexity is to simplify. In many organizations today, simplification takes the form of cost-cutting, radical restructuring, severe streamlining of business processes, and a withdrawal from the risks associated with creativity and innovation. These are the “simple solutions” that entice the timid. It’s a tempting and psychologically plausible response, but it’s neither sustainable nor strategic.

Post-normal reality bites

So what might a more thoughtful organizational response to complexity look like?

Firstly, we need to begin by accepting that we’ve entered what Ziauddin Sardar, the Muslim polymath, calls “post-normal times”. No dependable new ideologies, nor definitions of normalcy, have yet emerged to replace the old orthodoxies we’ve lost. Organizations will have to be exceptionally imaginative, resilient and intrepid if they’re going to capitalize on the opportunities that this vacuum of meaning generates. It’s not just an existential crisis; it’s an invitation to create new business models that harness the technical, commercial and relational potential of complexity.

Secondly, having accepted that we’ve entered a difficult in-between period, we need to be able to bear the uncertainty and ambiguity that we encounter in this liminal space. For most employees (and leaders), this is easier said than done. People naturally feel unsafe in complex, unpredictable environments where chaos and contradiction rule. Leaders who want their organizations to thrive in this brave new world will need to create enough psychological safety to enable their people to explore and innovate (and leaders themselves will need to find a way to access this safety too). They will need to allow some teams and units, if not the whole organization, to become self-organizing, nonlinear systems that can deliver on business goals in novel ways (while at the same time providing the containing function of good-enough management and the leadership that engagement demands). Organizations will succeed in a post-normal operating environment if they can develop a capacity to operate at the edge of chaos, suspended between order and disorder. Thus precariously poised, the most successful organizations will achieve a form of creative, “bounded instability”. Entropy is the new normal: for some organizations, it will spell disorientation and decline; for others, it will become the site of adaptation, innovation and change.

Thirdly, once we’ve reorganized ourselves in more innovative and productive ways, we need to continue to make psychological sense of our experience so we can capitalize on complexity. Leaders need to model a capacity to tame and reframe the anxiety induced by seismic change, so that their people can do it too. Psychologically sustainable organizations are run by people who can make emotional connections between the complexity they see in the external business environment and their felt experience of the painful changes that the organizational response demands. This necessarily means that leaders need to recognize, access and work with their feelings as a legitimate and valuable source of intelligence; unfortunately, the organizational culture rarely gives leaders permission to do this. Organizations that are wise enough to see that leaders need support and containment too will be much better equipped to reinvent customer and stakeholder relationships, legacy business models and historical operations. Ultimately, they are the complex, adaptive systems that will survive and thrive in a post-normal world.

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Prospero & Partners has a long track record in helping clients work with, not against complexity, enabling them to engage thoughtfully with turbulence and change. Our unique expertise is grounded in diverse academic disciplines that combine insights from the social sciences and systems-psychodynamics to help food and agriculture organizations transform the way they work in a complex world. From the facilitation of sense-making that boosts changeability to the development of leadership that engages people to act, our wide range of services can help you cultivate change and harvest value.

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