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About the Authors:
Jennifer Garvey Berger and Keith Johnston are founding partners of Cultivating Leadership, a global leadership consultancy. Jennifer is the author of Changing on the Job and believes that leadership is one of the most vital renewable resources in the world. She designs and teaches leadership programs, coaches senior teams, and supports new ways of thinking about strategy with people facing dramatic shifts in complexity, volatility, and change in their workplaces and markets. Keith is the former Global Chair of Oxfam International. Leadership development was the focus of the PhD Keith completed in 2008 at the Australian National University.

 Executive Summary:

“For every complex problem, there is a simple solution that is elegant, easy to understand and wrong” – H. L. Mencken (American journalist, satirist and cultural critic)

When faced with complex challenges or uncertain outcomes, many leaders think that if they are smart enough, work hard enough, or turn to the best management tools, they will be able to find the right answer, predict and plan for the future, and break down tasks into simple solutions that produce recognisable outcomes. Often this is not how to get the outcome that the system “needs”.

Simple Habits for Complex Times looks at things a little differently. Rather than just giving tools and models, it asks the reader to welcome complexity “like a guest” – full of opportunity versus a feeling of being overwhelmed.

The book then outlines three integral “practices” or “habits of mind” that are meant to enable leaders to navigate the unknown better.

The first step is engaging with complexity from the place of being curious about what is possible rather than what is likely (probable) through three habits of mind enable leaders to focus more on what might be possible:

  • Asking different questions (with a view to understand rather than to solve);
  • Taking multiple perspectives (even when we disagree with them, but at least being able to consider them), and
  • Seeing systems as a whole (including emergence – patterns that are starting to form).

What this means for leaders is that they can then better understand themselves, their roles, and the world around them. They can then become more nimble, respond with agility, and guide their organisations to thrive in a VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous) business landscape. There are no simple solutions in a VUCA world, but we can certainly learn simple habits to help us thrive.

“Certainty is a cruel mindset; it hardens our minds against possibility” – Ellen Langer

More detail on Simple Habits:

1. Asking different questions:

Trying to figure out what questions you’re asking and making an intentional shift to different questions opens new avenues for exploration in an uncertain and volatile world. When people are stuck in their own world, they find it really hard to get out… which makes it really hard for you to get into theirs – so having “different” questions really helps with that. The book shares the following model which requires some letting go of certainty (a view of “ok I know how to solve this”).

Instead of saying where are we going and what is the solution, rather ask:

  1. What are the stories people telling right now?
  2. What are people not talking about?
  3. Which people are you not listening to and learning from? (think about those people that irritate you!)

2. Taking multiple perspectives:

When facing complexity, it helps to get all the players on the table, no matter how unobvious. It is also vital to consider that no matter how odd or obnoxious someone else’s thoughts /behaviour may seem – most of the time that person sees their actions as reasonable and quite possibly heroic. Therefore, if you position what they are saying as from the “heroic mindset” this really helps us take multiple perspectives. Holding other perspectives opens up the “stories” that we have about ourselves and others and allows leaders to be more creative and compassionate (which improves relationships).

3. Seeing systems: 

“Every system is perfectly designed to get the results that it gets” – Paul Batalden

Complex systems are about non-linear events. Big sweeping change doesn’t often solve big problems, often it is much more subtle change that can do that. There is no silver bullet – this means that you are trying to simplify and find a simple cause rather than looking more closely at what the system is currently producing. The book tells us that the seeds of a better tomorrow are right here, right now. So rather focus on the present instead of the future.

Complexity theory also encourages us to take a look at the current system and how it operates in order to create the conditions that are emerging so that leaders can strengthen the conditions that they want, and weaken the ones that they don’t.

Look for the “weak signals” when looking at a complex system as they are clues (beginnings of patterns). What leaders are trying to do here is control emergence – but no one actually can. You cannot control the forces, but you can influence the way the system works (only if you get your head around that as a task).

The Relevance for Leaders today:

These three mind habits mean thinking about power in a slightly different way. It is not about being coercive / having charisma, it is about having “mutually transforming power” paying attention to each other in vigilant and vulnerable ways and working together to create visions and find ways forward.

The way things have “always” been done isn’t necessarily the way that it must be done going forward.

For those leaders that want to be able to thrive in complexity, it requires a degree of humility, openness and willingness to learn, to try different things and to be able to put ego aside. It needs leaders to truly listen to understand, not simply listen to advocate, solve, fix or simplify. Leading with a vision that is collectively generated through multiple perspectives is much more able to effectively contribute to the context in which people can make things happen. Sustaining and generating an organisation with this mindset involves developing people to have the capacities outlined in the book.

Which types of Leaders could benefit from reading this book:
Leaders who are dealing with uncertainty, change and growth.

What sort of a read is this book:
The book is well written and researched and is a great mix of learning through story-telling. It “tells” you how but also “shows” you how through lots of sense-making examples. The Model for the emerging future is really aligned to Theory U (Presencing Institute).

We trust you will enjoy it as much as we did!

Lauren Ratcliffe

Lauren Ratcliffe

Lauren Ratcliffe is a Senior Associate at Lockstep. Throughout Lauren’s career, she has always focused strongly on the development of the people in her team and it was through realising this passion and completing a yearlong internationally accredited Executive Leadership Coaching programme in London; that Lauren transitioned from the world of communications to working exclusively in People Development.

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