Complexity is the defining business and leadership challenge of our time. But it has never felt more urgent than this moment, with the coronavirus upending life and business as we know it. Governments are scrambling to mitigate the effects of the outbreak, and business leaders are rushing to protect their people, their customers, and their companies. For the next few weeks, we’ll be drawing on our deep knowledge base about what it takes to lead through the most complex and confounding problems, to offer you insights and advice about how to keep a steady hand on the wheel during the crisis, and how to guide your organization in its transition back to normalcy once the crisis winds down. We have been studying complexity and helping leaders navigate it for nearly 20 years. While this crisis is absolutely unprecedented, all complex challenges – including this one – are best managed when you understand specific underlying characteristics they all exhibit, and tried-and-true ways to approach them. Today: How the first step in finding clarity and mobilizing for action is to ask the right questions.
The rapid spread of the coronavirus has created chaotic conditions for many organizations over the last few days and weeks, leaving many leaders struggling to figure out what to do next. According to Dave Snowden, a Welsh management consultant and researcher who specializes in making sense of complexity, the first step in determining your response is to figure out which kind of problem you’re dealing with. His Cynefin framework identifies four distinct domains - simple, complicated, complex, and chaotic - and argues that a leader’s response should be different for each one.
A LEADER’S IMMEDIATE JOB DURING THE CHAOS
At this moment, leaders are clearly operating in the chaotic domain, which Snowden describes in the following way:
In a chaotic context, searching for right answers would be pointless: The relationships between cause and effect are impossible to determine because they shift constantly and no manageable patterns exist—only turbulence. This is the realm of unknowables. The events of September 11, 2001, fall into this category.
How should leaders respond in chaos? Snowden writes that:
A leader’s immediate job is not to discover patterns but to stanch the bleeding. A leader must first act to establish order, then sense where stability is present and from where it is absent, and then respond by working to transform the situation from chaos to complexity, where the identification of emerging patterns can both help prevent future crises and discern new opportunities.
This means that what your organization needs from you right now is fast and effective decision-making and communication, top-down, until order is restored. Establish the necessary (temporary) policy changes around things like compensation, travel and work-from-home, allocate resources to protect your people, make sure there’s infrastructure for people to be working remotely, and so on. There is no time to ask for input.
WHEN THE CHAOS ABATES, LEADERS MUST SHIFT TO NAVIGATING COMPLEXITY
Once strong leadership has helped the organization stanch the bleeding and calm the immediate crisis (likely a few days), you will shift from dealing with chaos to dealing with complexity. Once in that domain, where unpredictability and flux continue but instructive patterns can emerge (as Snowden says), you must recognize that you still can’t know answers in advance, but best answers and decisive action will emerge if you engage the right mix of people in planning. This is the time to set aside command-and-control for collaboration. As Snowden says,
Leaders who try to impose order in a complex context will fail, but those who set the stage, step back a bit, allow patterns to emerge, and determine which ones are desirable will succeed. They will discern many opportunities for innovation, creativity, and new business models.
You’re still in chaos mode right now. But as things settle down, you must also ask yourself how you will crack the complexity of the next few weeks and months ahead - with people working at home unable to do their jobs in the usual way, supply chain disruptions for you and your customers, urgent projects put on hold, revenue losses mounting, and so on. How will you ensure your company hits the ground running when the coronavirus has run its course and things return to relative normalcy? And, with a more opportunistic eye, how will you keep on top of the innovations, potential new business models, new relationships, cultural changes, and competitive advantages that emerge, so that the new normal coming out of this is an improvement on the old normal?
As we’ve advised in other articles about complexity (for example, Before You Try To Solve A Complex Challenge, Stop And Formulate The Right Question), start by asking the right questions.
GREAT LEADERS KNOW HOW TO ASK GREAT QUESTIONS
A great question:
For example, as your people and leadership team settle in for a few weeks of working in a completely different mode, and as customers and partners go quiet, your question might be:
“As the coronavirus takes its toll on business as usual, what must we all do to keep our people motivated and connected, to maintain relationships with customers and add value, to maximize existing revenue while finding new revenue opportunities, and to make advances on strategic imperatives that might otherwise languish?”
At the same time, thinking about how to recover from the damage done and be first out of the gate with traction and momentum when normalcy is restored, you might ask:
“What can we do right now to ensure that when life goes back to normal, our existing and prospective customers think of us as the most resilient, responsive and highest-value partner they have and/or need?”
And finally, when it comes time to reflect about what you learned during this time and how to apply those insights going forward, you might ask:
“During the coronavirus, what did we learn about ourselves, our business, our priorities, how we work, how we compete and how we deliver value? And what can we do over the next six months to institutionalize those insights so that we’re noticeably better all the time, whether operating in business-as-usual or crisis circumstances?”
IT IS A SIGN OF STRENGTH TO BE ASKING GREAT QUESTIONS
Asking questions like these demonstrate focus and determination, an “eye on the ball” mindset, that people want from their leaders, especially when crises emerge. When you’re dealing with complexity - whether triggered by a new competitive entry in your market, a recession, technological change, or a novel coronavirus outbreak - start with the right questions, and bring those questions to a representative cross-section of your company, partners, and even your customers.
The answers you hear will open your eyes to much you didn’t know and weren’t thinking about. And those answers, co-created and shared by a critical mass of leaders and influencers from inside and outside your organization, will generate momentum, trust and excitement out of the chaos that is otherwise overwhelming everyone right now.
Original article was posted in Forbes on March 19, 2020
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