Leadership & Complexity

I would not give a fig for the simplicity this side of complexity, but I would give my life for the simplicity on the other side of complexity.  – Oliver Wendell Holmes

There is little doubt that each of us gets more information every day, from many more sources than ever before. Indeed, this is only one way that our world is more complex today. What is Complexity?

It’s common to hear someone, whether it’s a stranger or a friend, musing out loud that the world is so much more “complex” these days. In the next breath that same person might complain that something they are trying to do – logging onto a new app, arranging a meet-up or conference call, or simply trying to retrieve their work files and emails at a local cafe – is far too “complicated”.

Is there a difference? Is “complex” the same as “complicated”? And what does it mean when something is “simple” anyway?  Is simple always good? Is simpler always better?

Spring Tulips, Rockefeller Center, New York, April 2016
Spring Tulips, Rockefeller Center, New York, April 2016

The accompanying image shows beds of tulips blooming around Rockefeller Center in New York in the Spring.  They form complicated patterns of color, shape, shading, orientation and maturity. At the same time, by looking closely, one sees that each individual flower is both distinct and complex. Each is beautiful because it is complex, impossible to decompose into parts without destroying its very essence, its wholeness as a flower.

One can, of course, see this image and think that it is “simple”. One could choose to simply see a band of pink flowers above a band of white ones: This way of seeing the world is simple, but it is boring. Seen in this way, with a kind of empty simplicity, both the intricacies of its complications and the mysteries of its complexity are invisible. Their beauty is ignored. Their lessons are lost.

When we see simplicity while ignoring complication, we are choosing convenient ignorance over the disciplined demands of knowledge. When we see simplicity without first appreciating complexity, the loss is even more profound: Gone forever is the opportunity to experience uncertainty and to engage it in the moment. Gone too, is the transient potential for discovery, the chance to sample the fine taste of holistic simplicity that can only be found “on the other side of complexity”.  Blink, however, and the moment is gone.

Lessons for Leaders

At Leadership Science we define leadership in complexity terms. Each leadership moment involves a choice to deny or to engage complexity: the choice to settle for the easy empty simplicity that is based upon what we think we know or believe, versus the choice to strive for the more difficult holistic simplicity that can only be learned through experience.  Depending on the situation, either type of simplicity can work.  Sometimes, when events are straight forward and predictable, following the easy template is good enough.  Sometimes, however, leadership that thoughtlessly applies an empty template to a complex problem can be downright dangerous.

At Leadership Science we focus on making the most of those leadership moments when the best and perhaps only answer lies within complexity and the simplicity beyond it.  In these moments, reaching for “simplicity on the other side of complexity” becomes a necessity.  At these critical moments, too many of us fail. We fail because, uncomfortable with complexity, we sometimes settle for the empty simplicity that remains safely on this, the easy side of it.

The hard kind of simplicity, holistic simplicity, lies on the other side of the uncertainty that is buried within complexity.  The answer cannot be conjured up or be imposed by edict.  It must be discovered.

In these cases, no leader can bring a simple answer. Although naive followers might expect the answer, it is a mistake to give in to the pressure and offer empty simplicity to them when the moment demands more.  No one person has the answer, because no one person knows enough. In these cases, rather than empty simplicity, the leader answers with determination, urgency and confidence that the answer will indeed be discovered. This is not weakness; it is strength. And it takes courage.

The coward’s way is to impose easy simplicity before engaging complexity.  This can be a kind of empty simplicity because it denies the opportunity to realize the benefits that emerge from within complexity itself.  But it tempts us while we remain on “this side of complexity”.  It tempts us because it is easy.

Holistic simplicity, however, is the leader’s way.  When it is discovered, it guides an organization to new levels of success. But holistic simplicity can only be found “on the other side of complexity”.  It arises from the very experience of traversing, exploring and learning from complexity itself.

But this journey can be a difficult one.  In the words of John F. Kennedy:

We choose to do … [these] … things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard. – John F. Kennedy Sept 12, 1962 

What this Means for Practice

For the practicing manager who is confronting complexity, it is critical to be specific about what ones means by the term “complexity”.  There are two distinct but interrelated uses of the term in practice. They must not be confused.

Organizing complexity relates to the perceived complexity of everyday human interactions that occur within and among institutions of business, government, and everyday life.  The growing relevance of the global community, the ubiquity of social media and other disruptive technologies, flattening organizations, changing organizational boundaries, and the many ways that some older ways of thinking are being challenged by the “gig” and the “sharing” economies,  are all described as “complexity”.

Complexity science relates to new knowledge and advances about how we can think scientifically about problems that are like the ones that are framed as organizing complexity. However, for the most part, as currently understood, these scientific advances are formulated to address a different set of problems, problems that arise in physics, chemistry, biology epidemiology, etc. and are more easily formulated into mathematical models.

The goal of Leadership Science is to use complexity science to help managers address organizing complexity without losing sight of the very real distinctions between these different domains of knowledge.

Our mission, like yours, is to pursue this journey through the complexity in your organization. Let’s work together to find and clarify the holistic simplicity that resides on the other side.

Contact us today!