The world can seem like a daunting, complicated place at times, especially considering the perpetually increasing complexity of our jobs.
I could count on a single hand the number of leaders who have told me they’re not concerned by the mounting changes in the workplace. The vast majority of leaders I talk to point to cutting-edge technology, shifting markets, social media, globalization—all elements that individually might make our heads spin, but together create a kind of tornado of the mind.
In the face of complexity and change, shifting your mind-set is the only way to not only cope but also make the journey more fun and successful. Here are four tips to get you started:
The questions you usually ask will get you the sort of answers you usually get, which is not so helpful when you need new ideas. For a twist, try asking a new question.
Most of us naturally ask questions that narrow and push to a solution. In complexity, being open to different possibilities is key. In a situation with lots of moving parts, narrowing is too likely to leave you attached to a solution that used to be reasonable but isn’t anymore.
Push yourself to ask questions like: "What is most surprising in this situation?" "What is at the edges of what seems possible today?" "What data am I ignoring because I don’t happen to like what they tell me?"
Different questions open you up to new possibilities and create a more flexible, agile mind-set.
We often think we have taken a wide variety of perspectives into consideration when really we have mostly just asked the people whose ideas we already knew about. Our natural habits are to crave alignment and to work to convince those whose opinions really differ (or ignore them).
When you’re dealing with a complex situation, each person’s perspective is too small—and a group that’s aligned with a single perspective is collectively missing important pieces. We need to get out of our own way.
You can do this by seeking out perspectives that are different and—here’s the key—not trying to convince anyone (especially ourselves) that we’re right.
You can tell you’re not taking someone’s perspective into consideration if you think of him as a moron or not getting it; this means there’s no way to learn from what his perspective might teach you.
Try holding back on forming an opinion and instead actively listen to the person you have written off as a lost cause, the group of people at work who seem so different from you that you don’t even know their names, or even the one who has seemed close to you but now seems to have a bee in her bonnet about something. Keep asking yourself, "In what ways could I be wrong or missing something?"
Our inclination is to pull things apart and solve the little bits one at a time. In complexity, the system is moving too fast and has too many interrelated parts for us to use this more comfortable approach with success for long.
Instead, when things are really moving fast, it’s time to look at the interactions. It’s like watching a game of ice hockey: If you follow the puck with your eyes, you’ll be lost. If you zoom out and look at the patterns of the players on the ice, you’ll see the game.
When you find yourself being drawn to the minutiae, see if you can find the patterns. When you feel yourself bouncing back and forth between two details, instead of thinking of them as opposites, see what balance you can strike between the two sides.
When it’s time to act, complexity calls for a series of safe-to-fail experiments—little bets that we can use to nudge the system in the desired direction. Instead of picking a final destination and trying to close the gaps, try finding places for experimentation and learning.
For example, if you decide there’s something not quite right about your culture, avoid the typical solution of measuring the culture and then rolling out a culture change program. Instead, look for unexpected places where the culture is trending in a better direction and design little experiments to see if you can encourage some of those trends elsewhere. The experiments should be small, inexpensive, and most importantly they should be things you can learn from.
Thriving in complexity requires a whole new way of looking at the world and acting within it. But as you shift your mind-set, amazing thing happens. You don’t just get better at dealing with complex situations, you actually get to enjoy the complexities and use them to your advantage. And in a world that gets more complex all the time, that’s a massive benefit.
—Jennifer Garvey Berger and Keith Johnston are the authors ofSimple Habits for Complex Times: Powerful Practices for Leaders (2015) from Stanford Business Books. They are partners in Cultivating Leadership—Cultivatingleadership.com.