Complexity - it's SIMPLES! by Polly McGee


I recently gave a closing keynote on Complexity + Leadership at a leadership symposium. Complexity, and how to lead in it is a hot button topic as organisations big and small, corporate, public and not-for-profit struggle to adapt to the rapidly changing environment in which they operate. It’s not just the workplace either.  Every part of our lives is more complex than it once was, and the result is more stress, more churn, more conflict, and the sense that our existence is an anxious netless highwire. 

Our collective coping tendency is to keen towards nostalgia, for times where we weren’t a 24/7 information superhighway, where we were rested and recharged overnight, where there was childhood innocence, trust in our institutions, our roles were defined, there was no need to be always agile. If you want to see what futile nostalgia and resistance to complexity looks like, you need look no further than what is happening on the world stage, as leaders rush to close borders, bring back nationalism and classify people into clear, recognisable camps of friend or foe.  The fact is humans like simple. 

Our brains are wired for simple – fight or flight. This binary lens creates stories that follow an equally simple narrative: are people (or countries or companies) goodies or baddies, is it a feast or a famine. We don’t like uncertainty, we don’t like chaos. While technology has galloped ahead, and we have superficially evolved alongside it, the fundamental mechanisms of our brains haven’t changed at the same pace. We are well dressed primatives seeking linear explanations in a world that doesn’t operate that way anymore. All our basic functions are still running on the old software, which hasn’t been updated.

So what makes complexity easier? Surprisingly, the answer is actually quite simple. It’s accepting that complexity exists and the game has changed permanently. That we aren’t going to know the answers, or be right, or handle this ourselves, like we used to. Leading in complexity means that there isn’t always a clear linear pathway to solving problems, which means being vulnerable, and being wrong, often, to be right occasionally. It also requires a healthy appetite for curiosity, and the willingness to follow a hunch, (try making a business case with that as your KPI.) Solutions in complexity come from solving small problems at the edges, and allowing the ripples of change to begin to untangle the bigger issues. Simples!

Polly McGee