We are living in very interesting times. Quite a statement, or understatement, yet, when have we NOT lived in interesting times? Our history continually places us in interesting, complex and even chaotic times. One thing that I have noticed, is that the stories we tell ourselves and each other have a direct bearing on our ability to interpret historical times, but most importantly, on our level of engagement, understanding, and behavior in our own present time.
But this is not enough, as we navigate, we also need to narrate our way through complexity simultaneously.
Organizations and leaders have been speaking the language of change for more than a decade. One thing has become clear, the world we now operate in is infinitely more complex than a decade ago. The ability to navigate this complexity is no longer a luxury, it is requisite.
But what exactly is complexity? Much studied and little understood, we are currently immersed in a felt sense of complexity through our individual and collective experiences. In simple terms, complexity emerges when the linear relationship to cause and effect, such as throwing a rock through a window, begin to dissipate and subsequently the number of variables introduced into a system increases, such as what is required in docking with the International Space Station. Wildly fluctuating stock markets, erratic weather patterns and Black Swan Events (an unpredictable event that is beyond what is normally expected of a situation and has severe consequences) are a few examples of complexity. These events are becoming more frequent and the consequences more substantial.
Leading in these turbulent and unpredictable environments is a challenge to say the least. When a system increases in complexity, becomes more volatile, uncertain or ambiguous, the leader’s approach is emergent and may seem counter intuitive. Leaders can no longer look to past approaches for the roadmap to the future. Equilibrium has been completely disrupted and the journey to a new equilibrium is far from a straight line.
Pausing and taking a break from the current trajectory is a critical step in the process to get grounded and centred to ensure clarity in the task at hand and the risk involved; to conserve critical energy and to take an inventory of what assets (resources, people, equipment, technology) will be required to move forward.
Even powerful hurricanes are peaceful and tranquil at the eye. This will serve to mark your centre point for the arduous journey ahead. Clarity resides here and is only possible when your mind and your thinking is clear.
2. Collect Data Points
In times of crisis or chaos the flow of information required for effective decision making is either disrupted, distorted, or stops completely. Collecting as many data points when and wherever possible, from a wide range of sources, to form a three-dimensional representation of what is happening, can assist in creating a possible way forward. This step is important to making decisions based on discovery driven learning. As many voices, viewpoints and informed opinions will form an anchor point for future action.
3. Discern A Pattern
At some point along the process a pattern will begin to emerge. Often the pattern can be based on weak signals or the pattern can be more evident. An informed perception of what is unfolding based on the widest possible range of perspectives, data points, and inputs will act to de-risk your decisions and help illuminate the possible options for a way forward. Due to the high degree of confusion and uncertainty, movement is usually slow and incremental. At this point, uncertainty and ambiguity rules.
4. Act and Collect Critical Feedback
In times of true ambiguity or chaos a leader must simply act. Actions can be small or large; either way this step is intended to test and collect the information that will bounce back. Just acting takes a high degree of courage. The leader may act in error, and, any action will invariably lead to an outcome that will result in immediate feedback. Although consequences may be unintended, curating the resulting feedback is the goal. A consecutive series of outcomes will begin to form the vital information required to successfully navigate the complexity. At this stage, the new patterns that emerge may be more evident and intelligible. This requires a high degree of systematic thinking and discernment. There is a high probability of error, nevertheless, the new pattern will inform and validate your “hunch” as to the best possible way forward.
5. Aggregate and Distill
The intention is to connect several patterns together and distill what nuggets of information you have to formulate either a decision or an action. The act of aggregating and distilling is intended to take disparate data points and bundle this into new information. Distilling the essence of this information begins to populate the blueprint for the most cogent way forward.
6. Adopt and adapt (iterate your way to the future)
At a certain point a definitive decision to act must be made. Based on the steps outlined, you should have at least the minimum required information to form a decision between speed and likelihood of success. The primary goal of this step is to act with greater intention. From this feedback, we move from the data and information to a deeper place of knowing. Adapting to this newfound knowing in order to course correct in real time begins to formulate the roadmap for successfully navigating complexity. Based on this continuous cycle of adopt and adapt, confidence begins to increase. As you move, staying calm and adapting to the data, information, and knowledge you have collected to this point begins to create momentum. Insight begins to crystalize from the collective learning and increases your speed and cadence toward acting.
When moving through data, to information, to knowledge and finally to insight, the ambiguity begins to dissipate, the range of possible futures begin to narrow and clarity begins to emerge. You become more confident that you are moving towards the most correct course of action.
Story: Rewriting the narrative as a force for change
A critical factor in navigating complexity is moving from the old narrative (story) “we are in trouble” (or some variation of those four words), to “here is what we now understand”, to “things are changing rapidly and here is what we are learning” and “this is our best option”, to “here is how it works”, and finally to some variation of “this is what success will look like when we arrive”. Again, much of this is counter intuitive and downright difficult when you find yourself in the thick of complexity. Skilled leaders that have learned to navigate complexity well have used the approach of narrating your way out of complexity as an important and parallel strategy.
Stories, well crafted and well delivered tend to calm fear, engender confidence, inform, and educate simultaneously. None of us have the definitive answer of what the future will look like and how to get there at the best of times. In the worst of times, fear, anxiety, uncertainty, and chaos only act to increase complexity and obfuscate a clear way to a preferred future. One thing we can be certain of is learning to successfully navigate complexity and narrating our way to the future will be an essential skill for leaders.
In the spirit of some memorable Hollywood movies; Casablanca, Braveheart, The Matrix, Alien and Jaws to mention a few, these are some of the stories that have contributed to shaping our human experience. As we take our place in “the new story”, the skill to navigate and narrate will become more common place in the leader’s new toolkit.
Andre N. Mamprin is a Designer, Explorer, Ecologist, Developer and Alchemist and is a member of the Uplift Studio Lab team.