Implications for leaders and decision-makers
It is not surprising if we feel overwhelmed by all of this. Many have a sense of being “unmoored”; of having lost their bearings and having no solid ground to anchor us. Everything we thought we knew seems insufficient. We continually have to engage the boundary between competence and incompetence, between knowing and not knowing.
Most of us have lived in a world shaped by narratives that equate our value as human beings to knowing, having answers and being confident. Many are struggling to deal with the fact that the knowledge and skills that brought them past success are now becoming irrelevant at a mind-bending pace.
The ability to make sense of the situations we face in the “here-and-now” has never been more critical. We need to become “contextually intelligent”, able to make sense of each unique situation in order to know how to act appropriately and not become paralysed by the uncertainty.
Many are struggling to deal with the fact that the knowledge and skills that brought them past success are now becoming irrelevant at a mind-bending pace.
Dave Snowden’s Cynefin™ sense-making framework (4) is helpful as a sense-making aid. It has five primary domains that help us distinguish between five different contexts. On the right are two ordered domains. This is the world of stability that we are most comfortable in, where cause-and-effect relationships are either self-evident or can be figured out. Here we are dealing with known unknowns or even known knowns. We can apply industry best practices and standard operating procedures, or we can consult with experts and do analysis; in fact, most of our existing tools and practices equip us well to function in here.
However, we are less equipped to operate in the other three domains, and unfortunately, this is where we mostly find ourselves now.
In the Complex domain we need to interact, or dance, with the system to gain an understanding of the patterns and dynamics at play. We act experimentally; small, local safe-to-fail experiments help us find our way forward. We look for opportunities to repurpose existing skills or resources. In this domain, analysis leads to paralysis and checklists and best practices are dangerous. Every now-and-again, we are dipped into Chaos. During the Covid-19 pandemic, this is happening more often that we would like.
The Chaotic domain, unlike the others, is a temporary state of crisis where there are no effective constraints and no discernible patterns. When we experience a true black swan event (1), we often find ourselves here. In Chaos we need decisive action, we need to impose constraints (sometimes draconian in nature e.g. country lockdowns) to buy ourselves some time. As soon as we introduce constraints, patterns start to emerge that provide us with management options, and hopefully the opportunity to stabilise the situation into the Complex domain. It is important to know what we are not in a perpetual state of chaos, as that removes our sense of agency. We dip into chaos every now and again, but mostly we are in complexity or in the final domain, a state of Confusion.
It is important to know what we are not in a perpetual state of chaos, as that removes our sense of agency.
The final domain, one that is often ignored, but that I believe is of extreme importance now, is the central domain of Confusion. We find ourselves here when we don’t have enough information to make sense of where we are. When things are ambiguous, when we face double-blinds and paradox. This is the domain of Confusion. The danger is that we get stuck there, which may lead to a descent into Chaos.
By now it should be abundantly clear that leaders and decision-makers need to become contextually intelligent. That we can no longer afford to assume our approaches and tools are context agnostic and that we cannot rely on experts and best-practices any longer. This has implications for Management & Leadership Development?
More than ever before, we need to focus on enabling decision-makers and leaders to become complexity- and future-fit. We need to shift our thinking about what leadership is, focusing less on the individual inhabiting the role, and more on the dynamic interplay between leading and following that can enable true adaptive leadership.
By now it should be abundantly clear that leaders and decision-makers need to become contextually intelligent.
With exponential change, technical skills and best practices have short-lived and limited value. Therefore, our focus is on building the meta-skills that will ensure adaptive capacity, and the ability to respond to increasing turbulence. These include sense-making, curiosity, network intelligence and learning agility.
In the first article of this series (Part 1) and in this article (Part 2) we focused on gaining a better understanding of the challenges presented by the post Covid-19 context. In the final article (Part 3), we will look at what leaders can do practically to better navigate the complexity, chaos and confusion.
The UFS Business School recognises the challenges posed to management and leadership by the times we live in. This has led to the design of our Future Fitness approach to management and leadership development.
The Core Idea – Future Fit Management & Leadership
- Our Value Proposition will enable decision-makers and leaders to become complexity- and future-fit.
- Focusing on meta-skills that will ensure adaptive capacity, and the ability to respond to increasing turbulence.
- With exponential change, technical skills and best practices have short-lived and limited value. Our programmes will aim to fundamentally shift how participants see and make sense of their contexts and equip them with meta-skills such as curiosity, learning agility, sense-making and adaptive intelligence.
Our view on Future Fit Management & Leadership:
Being a Future Fit Manager or Leader will require the development of the following fitness areas:
- Digital Fitness – For managers and leaders, the key to digital readiness lies in creating awareness and stimulating interest in and preference for the digital way.
- People Fitness – Self-development and appreciation lies at the heart of appreciating the value and potential that lies in diversity.
- Customer Fitness – Mindsets for growth and agility is required to keep the customer at the centre of all innovation and design processes as we adapt to an ever-changing environment.
- Strategic Fitness – Doing the right things and doing them right.
- Functional Fitness – Developing the required technical, managerial skills.
- Complexity Fitness – The ability to take on a Complexity view on all the Fitness Areas discussed above. Complexity and sense-making as “new language”, enables decision-makers and senior leaders to ensure adaptive capacity, and the ability to respond to increasing turbulence.
Please visit the UFS Business School website for online programmes available, or contact Ansie Barnard: Barnardam@ufs.ac.za
As one of South Africa’s thought leaders in the applied complexity, Sonja Blignaut has teamed up with the UFS Business School for purposes of developing a range of short learning programmes in applied complexity and to facilitate the development of a Complexity View on a Future Fit Management and Leadership Development value proposition.
Sonja is a thinking partner for leaders, change-makers (individuals and teams) who need to lead in uncertainty; enable strategic agility and create future-fit organisations. She co-creates and delivers fit-for-context interventions to enable responsive and adaptive organisations.
Sonja also looks after the global Cognitive Edge network and is the South African partner for Prof Dave Snowden’s company Cognitive Edge for over a decade (Wales, USA, Singapore, UK, Netherlands, Brazil). She teaches locally and internationally on Complexity, Cynefin™ and enabling adaptive organisations. Sonja is certified in various individual and systemic coaching methods and a sought-after speaker, with experience at various conferences locally and internationally, including TEDx.
1. Black Swan. Taleb, N. 2007
4. A leader’s framework for decision making. Snowden & Boone, 2007, Harvard business review
5. The Practice of Adaptive Leadership: Tools and Tactics for Changing Your Organisation and the World. Heifetz, R., Grashow, A., & Linsky, M., 2009.