“Complicated systems are highly predictable; complex systems are the complete opposite. Understanding the distinction between the two is necessary for organizations because, to date, they have mostly viewed the world as complicated and, therefore, something they can control. What is increasingly evident is that the world is, in fact, complex and unpredictable and we must accept and adapt to this to succeed.” -via Shoremount

Or as Uhl-Bien, Marion and McKelvey share, “We are transitioning from an industrial paradigm based on Newtonian principles of certainty to a new paradigm based on knowledge creation and uncertainty.” So the question then becomes, especially in the midst of the acceleration and the expansive emergence of deep levels of uncertainty across all levels of society, have today’s organizational and institutional leaders come to grips with understanding this deeply important shift?

For, what we have seen over recent times is the increasing rise of the dilemma, a dropping off of technical problems towards more and more adaptive challenges across our organizational and institutional ecosystems. Especially as these systems become much more interdependent and interconnected, both internally and externally.

A move from the complicated to the complex…

As this complexity increases within our systems, often it is often accompanied by more and more volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity (VUCA). Often what we see in these dynamic environments, is a dynamic emergence and increase of VUCAness across these systems, especially when ideas and platitudes of certainty begin to wane and clarity and coherence are seen to be lacking.

As Jan Bartscht shares in 21st Century Leadership and the Way of the Successfully System, “A world made up of many interconnected, and interdependent, complex adaptive systems is a complex, uncertain and volatile world. Complexity, uncertainty and volatility are necessary consequences of a world dominated by complex, adaptive systems.” A world where the complicated has given over to the complex, a world where certainty has been taken over by uncertainty, a world where the unknowns have begun to outweigh the knowns. As the article What is the Difference Between a Complex and a Complicated System? shares, “For 300 years, the normalized worldview has seen the universe through the complicated lens. Rooted in the work of Newton and Descartes, this is the mindset of rational thought and deterministic relationships. But the world is not complicated; it is complex. Moreover, the pace of technological change and proliferation of information that we now experience is increasing the complexity of our global environment at a rate unique to human history.”

For it is not just clarity and coherence that seem to be lacking in the midst of the current context of heightened complexity, it’s realizing that the same thinking, the same processes, and the same behaviors and actions that led to viable solutions for the technical problems we previously faced, will be no match for the rash of adaptive challenges and dilemmas that we are beginning to encounter.

In many ways, today’s leaders will have to move from deftly providing solutions and certainty, to dealing with dilemmas that have no “right” answer, while managing the plethora of tensions that accompany those challenges. Which necessitates acclimating quickly to a new way of thinking and leading, toward a deep mindset shift that might possibly be at odds with the current organizational and institutional thinking of the time. As Rick Nason shares in the MITSMR article The Critical Difference Between Complex and Complicated, “When facing a problem, managers tend to automatically default to complicated thinking. Instead, they should be consciously managing complexity.” Which is and will be a difficult mindshift for today’s organizational and institutional leaders to undertake, especially as many have made their mark dealing in solutions and certainty. This will not only require high levels of individual and organizational learning, it will also necessitate the ability unlearn and relearn anew from both.

It is in realizing that complexity also requires a sense of adaptability, of being able to move away from the polarity of (either/or) thinking, to engage in (and) thinking. To not only seeing the system that you are working in, but being able to effectively manage the tension between the polarities and growing number of dilemmas and adaptive challenges that are erupting across our societal systems, without snapping back into the comfort of solutionitis and (either/or) thinking.

However, before this kind of thinking and change can occur, we have to become more familiar with our systems and the traits of ‘complicated’ vs a ‘complex’ system or paradigms. As seen below, Bartscht provides from 21st Century Leadership and the Way of the Successfully System a quick glance to the characteristics of  ‘complicated’ (Traditional Newtonian) and ‘complex’ (Emerging modern ‘complex systems’) paradigms:

Traditional Newtonian Paradigm 

  • Systems are complicated
  • Causation is linear, certain and predictable
  • Situations are stable equilibrium
  • Problems are understood and solved using reductionism
  • Performance is ensured by optimizing predictable linear processes
  • Communication and control flows through formal hierarchies

Emerging Modern ‘Complex Systems’ Paradigm

  • Systems are complex
  • Causation is non-linear, uncertain and unpredictable
  • Situations are volatile, dynamic and emergent
  • Problems are understood and dissolved by a ‘systems approach’
  • Performance is ensured by organizing harmonious alignment in non-linear interdependent feedback loops
  • Communication and control flow across large, interconnected networks

When leaders are able to recognize and determine whether they are working in a ‘complicated’ or a ‘complex’ system or paradigm, allows them to shift their mindset, to effectively determine if they’re working at solutions for technical problems, or working toward effectively managing dilemmas and adaptive challenges being faced by the organization or institution. Seeing this shift that will be incredibly important to today’s modern leaders, as recognizing the environment that they are working is vital to future relevance. Especially for a world that is changing in some very dynamic ways that are having great effect on our organizational and institutional systems. It is these deep changes and the uncertainty and complexity that accompanies them that is quickly challenging and unraveling the assumptions for which leaders have previously based their approach to leadership. As the thinking of  Plowman and Duchon is shared in Bartscht’s 21st Century Leadership and the Way of the Successfully System, “Conventional notions of management and leadership are based on an assumption of certainty: the world is knowable, systems are predictable, and effective leaders can rely on formulaic approaches to planning, control, and organizational problems.”

Assumptions of certainty that no longer exist…

It is in this realization, we see that conventional, Newtonian ways of thinking and leading, in many ways, are struggling to hold on to a sense of relevance and effectiveness as the complicated has become the complex. However, it is also in realizing that this is not a mindshift that is readily accepted or easily embraced. Leaders are often pulled kicking and screaming into these uncertain and complex environments believing that certainty and predictability will ultimately prevail, even has command and control strategies and hierarchical structures dissipate into irrelevance and ineffectiveness.

As Bartscht brings forth from Uhl-Bien, Marion and McKelvey, “The fundamental contradiction between the belief in a certain world and the reality of an uncertain world lies at the heart of the modern day leadership crisis.” And yet, even in the midst of the current context and crisis, remains a leadership crisis that fights vehemently, even in the face of its own relevance, against its deconstruction. For, in the same way our mind thrives on certainty, order and predictability, so do much of our approaches to leadership.

Ultimately, we will need to engage new and non-obvious thinking and strategies for building new understandings toward this exponentially changing world and the complexity that is emerging from it. As Bartscht shares from Gleick, Uhl-Bien, Marion and McKelvey, “The Newtonian paradigm cannot make-sense of complexity, chaos and volatility, the two paradigms are fundamentally incompatible.”

In many ways we exist at a crossroads, where something must eventually give…

A junction where the complicated and complex have come face to face, a crossroads where they come head to head in a world that is in the midst of its own massive upheaval that is spilling out in broad swaths of uncertainty that are spilling out across our societal, organizational, and institutional ecosystems. Understanding this dynamic will be vital for the future of leadership and building more effective systems across our organizations and institutions. As well as realizing how our organizations and institutions have truly become complex adaptive systems, and what has worked before, what has worked effectively in the past, may very well will not work in the future.

“For organizations to succeed in the 21st century, they will need the lens of complexity to embrace unpredictability: they must stop trying to build engines and start playing chess.” -via Shoremount

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