Dealing with Complexity

By Randy Chittum, Ph.D.

Moving forward when there is no simple solution to a problem

We might think of complexity as representing situations where there is no simple relationship between cause and effect. While our understanding of that relationship is often wrong, it is at least simple. When things become complex there are more variables than we can account for. This is different from uncertainty where an answer may be known but I don’t know it.

The real dilemma for leaders is that even when things are complex (and uncertain for that matter) we are still expected to act, and achieve. How do we choose a path?

Ways forward
One way forward is to be clear about our values. Margaret Wheatley tells us that our values must be expressed in action. We have espoused values that are aspirational and “values-in-action” that are, in a sense our real values. Those values might be harder to uncover. The reason that values are powerful when dealing with complexity is that they provide a field around which we, and others, can self-organize.

Another way forward is to be clear about our vision as co-created by a team or an organization without being overly attached to outcomes. An outcome attachment may be too narrow to be effective in an ever-changing and complex world. Vision on the other hand lends itself to adaptation. Some of you just fell out of your chairs laughing at the idea of no (or fewer) outcomes. I simply draw your attention to two things. First, not being attached to outcomes is not the same thing as not having them. This means that I can have them but shift or let go when they no longer make sense. Some of you are still laughing. One more thing then – consider that while we are overly focused on outcomes and targets we may well be missing the bigger opportunity.

In their new book Simple Habits for Complex Times, Jennifer Garvey Berger and Keith Johnston offer a very useful distinction. They suggest that we can manage the probable or lead the possible. Of course we may find ourselves doing both, but ask yourself, where are you oriented? Do you live in the probable or the possible? Is your leadership life organized around analysis and prediction? Or is it organized around imagination and seeing more, and further?

My sense from talking to leaders every day is that we have plenty of people who are managing the probable. You can pick them out because they are often frustrated by how much things change. What we don’t have is enough people imagining and creating. If you want to separate yourself and your organization, conduct a safe (Jennifer and Keith call this “safe to fail” as opposed to failsafe) experiment. You might just change the future instead of predicting it.

Dr. Randy Chittum is an executive coach who works with executives and managers worldwide in a variety of organizational settings. He recently served as Vice President, Leadership Development at a publically traded company, where he reported to the CEO and coached executives, created and managed succession planning programs, taught leaders, and worked with intact teams to enhance performance. Randy currently serves on the faculty of the Georgetown University Leadership Coaching program in the Institute of Transformational Leadership. For more information, visit

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