Complexity leadership: 6 effective leadership practices

By Professor David Denyer & Professor Kim Turnbull James

What is effective leadership? And in particular, what constitutes effective leadership in the complex, collaborative, cross boundary and adaptive organisations that constitute today’s workplace?

Today’s business world, as most of us recognize, can increasingly be summed up by the military-inspired acronym ‘VUCA’, reflecting the Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity that characterises it.

So it therefore follows that the challenge of leadership today is also defined by VUCA.
Simply put, leadership models that are based on a set of competences attributed to a single individual-a leader are no longer sufficient in a VUCA environment.

Leadership is about creating the climate for collaboration, learning and creativity that can only come from working collectively to generate new ways of working that no one individual can produce.

At Cranfield, we routinely speak with senior executives in a range of organisations dealing with VUCA environments, and have explored leadership with thousands of managers on our executive development programmes.

From this, we have distilled six leadership practices that we believe are central to effective complexity leadership in today’s VUCA world.

So how effectively does your organisation engage in these leadership practices?

Complexity leadership practice #1: Discovering

Einstein once said that if he had an hour to save the world, then he would spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem, and five minutes thinking about solutions.

Digging deep into a problem, its history, its context and (most importantly) the people involved in it is a central function of complexity leadership. This involves experiencing and observing the situation from multiple viewpoints and listening to diverse voices.

Complexity leadership practice #2: Framing

To help create or generate a solution to a problem involves first identifying what needs to be solved, and who might help with that.

Sometimes it is important to reframe or disrupt conventional thinking about solutions by challenging the commonly accepted understanding of the underlying problem.

Exploring the contradictory aspects of a problem also provides the opportunity to create novel solutions—solutions that might shift people’s mindsets from seeing only ‘either-or’ choices to seeing ‘both’ or ‘and’ solutions.

Complexity leadership practice #3: Systems thinking

Effective complexity leadership, we have found, happens when people come together to step back and see the big picture, and consider the interactions between the various parts of the system that can only be learned through exploration by those involved.

They understand that it is important to look for patterns and connections, examine knock on effects, and shift their focus between individual parts of the system and the system as a whole.

Complexity leadership practice #4: Brokering

Likewise, effective complexity leadership involves connecting other people’s interests to the work of solving the problem, through identifying and communicating a shared need that can be best satisfied by working together.

They understand that negotiating other people’s involvement in the collective effort helps those people to become fully identified with the organisation’s purpose, and the changes it is making.

Complexity leadership practice #5: Holding

Maintaining a degree of productive tension is another best practice: provoking change, through creating a sense of tension, but keeping that tension within productive ranges by avoiding heightened emotionality.

In practice, that means that leaders must cultivate a capacity for ‘not knowing’, allowing space and time for reflection to take place—and potential solutions evaluated—with difficulties explored as learning opportunities, rather than denied or redirected.

Complexity leadership practice #6: Collective learning

Finally, effective complexity leadership involves stimulating the organisation with innovative ideas and new ways of working, perhaps by drawing on multiple perspectives and interdisciplinary teams, or co-creating with customers and consumers.

How best to do this? Try creating safe ‘problem spaces’ for experimenting and prototyping, and then integrating and embedding successful innovation back into the formal system.

The paradox of leadership

None of this is easy—and all of it takes practice.

In a VUCA world, leadership calls for being able to direct and coordinate change, but to do so without specifying solutions, or creating ‘top down’ visions and targets that might alienate the very people who can develop solutions to emerging challenges.

Paradoxically, therefore, executives have to manage the tension between the strong supportive leadership that people want to see during times of change, and the more challenging and demanding collaborative leadership that will sustain the organisation.

Because—like it or not—the emerging VUCA world calls for both kinds of leadership.

Tags: Cranfield School of Management, leadership, featured leadership