Accelerating Performance in Complexity

By Dawna Jones, republished from

Why do many people feel overwhelmed, fatigued and have difficulty balancing work with life? How do you accelerate performance in complexity?

Standing on the steps of a parking lot in Davos, Switzerland during the World Economic Forum, Colin Price, global managing partner of the Leadership and Consulting Practice at Heidrick & Struggles, talked to me about complexity and performance. Colin’s take on the subliminal effect of complexity — as exemplified by the election of Trump and Brexit vote — reveals the popular backlash that the pressure of complexity is silently exerting.

What he was saying struck a cord with me. Simplistic solutions are comforting. They restore the illusion of control and certainty, but it quickly becomes clear that they are barely bandaids spanning an open breach and can instigate a negative effect.

There has been no shortage of analysis over why the Brexit vote went the way it did or how Trump came to be elected as the President of the US. Many explanations cover the compelling narrative, the appeal to the middle class desire for restoring control and ‘normalcy’; most analyze the polarization from a cognitive psychology perspective. The opportunity for emerging business leaders is not in the analysis but in understanding how to better respond to the effect Trump and Brexit have on the workplace environment. Both were accomplished using fear, a viral emotion spreading like wild fire. Unlike wildfire, growth does not take place afterward.

Many of the system-wide changes hit the middle class hard. The expectation that the government will supply jobs and that companies and business must do whatever it takes to make money, including compromising ethics and ecological life support, is an archaic yet familiar ethos. While the middle class, and many others, would prefer to return to simpler times and higher sense of security about how the world works, the trajectory of evolution is not reversing to comply.

Oversimplified solutions, like building a wall to keep out crime, ignore the reality of life: that everything is interconnected and inter-related. Transcending fear and the temptation to resort to dangerously simplistic solutions starts at the personal leadership level. Edified by the knowledge of a systemic transformation from linear to more holistic world-view, business leaders are handed both a challenge and a map.

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The Challenge of Complexity for Leaders

Business has been built on linear thinking. Inputs plus process equals outputs. The assumption was that the purpose of business is to generate profit as money-making machines, so companies were designed accordingly. By focusing on a singular goal such as maximizing shareholder value or delivering high quality service to the customers, profit would result. The idea of multiple points of benefit only entered in when companies were astute enough to realize that relationships, internally and externally, were a pivotal success factor. As Price points out in our conversation, business benefited from adding complexity but that benefit is now turning into a liability. Choices become overwhelming, and despite awareness of the need to do something different, the question is where to start.

Given the push to perform to past measures of success, it is tempting to interpret accelerating performance to mean ‘do the same things you have always been doing, only faster’; a linear and simple interpretation. But that is not what business or business leaders are being called to do.

How Can Business Benefit from Complexity?

Oversimplifying solutions is a survival mechanism that both blocks and distracts from the inevitable need to evolve. It is sourced in a desire to roll back to a simpler more predictable time where everything seemed more certain. While certainty provides stability it is uncertainty that provides growth. Growth is a number one priority for business executives but it cannot be achieved using ‘business as usual’ strategies. By applying the principles that go with complexity to advancing how executives think and perceive reality companies are better positioned to excel as the world unfolds.

First, here is what doesn’t work:

1. It does not work to convert complexity into complicated so you can apply linear thinking and then put it back into the complex quadrant of the Cynefin model.

Why? You are not evolving your thinking, just trying to cope. Though it works for the immediate moment, it is not a sustainable strategy. Ultimately, to function without stress, a higher level of cognitive agility gives you access to a variety of perceptual lenses and greater ease.

2. It does not work to apply linear thinking to managing or changing complex organizations. The whole notion of ‘thinkers’ at the top and ‘doers’ everywhere else in the organization ensure that the disengagement statistics stay at ridiculously high rates.

Why? Handling immediately surfacing issues demands the talent and attention of everyone in the company. You are unlikely to get every employee scanning changing conditions if your focus is on making money benefitting a single party, shareholders or executives for example. You are more likely to engage if you are doing something that is meaningful. Make your purpose engaging so all are inspired to help the company succeed including the customer.

3. It does not work to command change initiatives and then blame middle managers or employees for being resistant.

Why? Commanding change is a linear strategy that creates resistance because it does not fit a complex dynamic system. If the changes being demanded do not benefit the customer, middle management is wise to push back. Otherwise, the focus rotates to internal goals rather than linking the company’s creative strengths to the customer’s values.

In place of exercising evasive or habitual maneuvers, facing complexity head on brings into play a more sophisticated approach to gaining agility and performance. Price’s new book: Accelerating Performance: How Organizations Can Mobilize, Execute, and Transform with Agility provides ways to accomplish acceleration with agility but doing so requires a higher level of leadership that does not rely on authority. Leadership development becomes a state of progressive and rapid evolution in personal capacity to see the health of the inter-relationships across the company at multiple layers.

How Does This Apply to Leadership and Executive Performance?

When making the transition from operational decision making to executive the task is to be equally comfortable with conceptual thinking and concrete. Every business owner needs to be able to function both at the visionary and operational levels in order to work with the many surprises our uncertain future has in store. Operational roles work with certainty and predictability. Life does not. Nor does the fundamental systemic change underway. Being equally capable of handling conceptual issues alongside the more concrete is a pre-requisite to sensing and foreseeing interruptions before they hit hard as a crisis.

Accelerating performance in the context of complexity asks for humility, growth and a desire to learn. It is an invitation to a more fulfilling way of leading in the world. And it requires zero-tolerance for complacency and a high value for diversity of thought and world-view.

Evolving Leadership Mastery Using Complexity — The Map

For business to handle complexity and the radical collapse of linear structures and systems demands infinitely more from leaders. It requires a deeper and higher level of self-management and self-leadership. Price’s research surveyed leaders functioning at a high performance level and low performance level to ask: what were high performing leaders doing differently? The answer: Nothing. They were doing two things better and faster: 1) self-reflect (self-observation) and 2) self-correcting.

The difference lies in how quickly these inner skills were applied: over a longer period of time or in the moment. Higher mastery for complex situations demands in the moment adjustment to observing and correcting mental and emotional awareness. It is clear to me that raising self and organizational consciousness is the highest leverage for finding the way through complexity.

The economic, social and ecological context for business is changing fast. So are the fundamental principles for generating revenue. Switching from linear processes to accomplishing economic well-being by being of benefit for and to the world is the first leap of leadership. Inside companies with the courage to make the shift, renewal of the human spirit is a necessity to achieve both engagement and the level of creativity required to keep pace.

Performance in the context of complexity operates on elegant principles: an advanced state of cognitive agility very few have achieved. The starting point is to observe the focus and direction (positive or negative) of your mental and emotional states. The brain is wired to treat new as a threat. By observing your reaction in the moment and then self-correcting toward a healthy trust-based response, you train your mind. The opposite is reverting to a desperate version of survival. Complexity challenges leaders and humanity to accelerate performance by becoming better at being human beings, individually and collectively.

This article was originally published in the Huffington Post: Great Workplace Cultures, Feb.23, 2017.

Republished by permission of the author.

Featured Image/graphic link added by Enlivening Edge Magazine.