Just off a call with a potential client today and we were scoping out some of the work that we might do together, with a small organization facing unprecedented change. They are in a place of finally realizing that they are not in control of what is happening to them. They are completely typical in this respect.
I am constantly struck by the fact that we have so few skills, frameworks and so little language for dealing with complexity. Clients all the time approach me looking for certainty, answers and clear outcomes. It’s as if they are searching for the one person who will promise them the relief they are looking for. And no one can. Because mostly what they are FEELING is their emotional reponse to the reality of a complex world. And no amount of rational and linear planning will address that feeling. in fact quite the opposite. Sitting down and deciding on a vision, goals, objectives and plan just defers the pain, because it fools you into thinking you are in control but it sets up a false ideal against which your progress will always be measured to be short.
Confronting complexity is hard. It is not merely that we need better tools to think about it. We need better tools to emotionally deal with it. it is overwhelming, infuriating, confusing, and frightening. And almost every organization I work with that fails to address it well fails because they don’t attend to the fear. They build fears into their processes, or they build processes to avoid confronting what they are afraid of: usually that we don’t know what’s going and we don’t know what to do.
My potential client asked me if I could say what outcomes would come from working with me. In brief they are this:
- We will build the capacity to understand and work with the problems you are facing in context by confronting and changing the view we take around complexity
- We will work strategically with the content of the project, and build participatory processes together that will change the way we do the work of addressing complex problems
- We will build resilient containers for the work that will allow us to confront our fears and limiting beliefs about the work and the change we are in, and that will provide a solid strategic framework for our project.
- We will arrive at a set of strategic decisions about the present moment and be prepared to make strategic decisions about the future.
That’s it. Sometimes those outcomes are incredibly concrete, sometimes it is more about building capacity, but it is always about acting strategically, and that sometimes means learning a new language and a new set of skills. I find that it’s the learning part with which people are most impatient. They seems to want to be able to accelerate the outcomes they want without having to change their approach. But, if you found yourself teleported to rural Bangladesh and you now had to make a living as a rice farmer, do you think your current language and skill set would be applicable, if only you applied yourself harder?
There are projects that fit the ordered domain of work, in which project management and strategic planning leads to predictable outcomes. And there is work for which “learning” is both the outcome and the new organizational structure and leadership practice. It is very important not to confuse the two contexts. And it is surprising just how much we are willing to turn a blind eye to complexity (as both a friend and a foe) in favour of a stable and knowable future, no matter how impossible that idea is.