Simple Habits for Complex Times – Powerful Practices for Leaders (2015), by Jennifer Garvey Berger and Keith Johnston. Stanford Business Books: Stanford, CA.
“Damn!” is the first word in Simple Habits for Complex Times. And with this, we are ushered into the world of Yolanda, the CEO of a child welfare agency, and her team of dedicated and passionate social care staff, as they face yet another tragic outcome for a child in their care.
Yolanda’s journey towards ‘thinking anew’ is a narrative through which the authors describe and help us understand the VUCA world (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous) and how to navigate it in these uncharted waters. One of the first concepts they tackle is the human need/drive for predictability, structure, patterns and safety:
“Our minds love categorizing and learning from the past in order to keep us safe into the future. And that has been great for us. Without this capacity to predict and determine risks, we’d just be a stunted branch on the evolutionary tree. We carry with us a kind of bell curve of possibilities, and depending on our background and knowledge…we are constantly making decisions about risk and reward. That internal judging system has done pretty well to protect and keep us for tens of thousands of years, but it is beginning to short out now. And one of the key ways our system misfires is as it considers the difference between the probable and the possible.” (p. 10)
If we look to the past to predict and order the future (probabilities), we constrain the array of options available to us (possibilities). This is great if we are facing a knowable future as we can be efficient with our decision-making time and resources. However, as we are in an increasingly VUCA world, the past can’t always help us predict the future—it is simply unknowable. Complexity then is about wrapping our mind around what is possible, rather than what is probable (based on past experience).
This is easier said than done. Brain and behavioral research suggests our “general pattern is to prune and simplify” (p. 12). In the social care field, that translates into looking at what we know from prior experience, what the risks are, what outcomes we want, what directions we have received (from legislation to policies) and weighing it all to formulate a plan that will result in a specific outcome.
However, there are so many variables that we can’t possibly know anything for sure. When faced with complexity, we have to intentionally nurture new ways of thinking and acting that stretch us into the realm of more possibilities… and this can be uncomfortable. Further, there is a dissonance between what we are often expected to do as leaders (predict, plan, direct, be in control) and the reality of the VUCA world. The authors suggest three ‘deceptively simple’ habits that can help grow more complexity of mind:
- Ask different questions
- Take multiple perspectives
- See systems
I am going to focus on asking different questions. This is a place that we can start working right now and it relates to my previous post on fixed and growth mindsets. Think of this as yoga for the mind. The first thing to be aware of is that not all questions are equal. We already know that it is helpful to be curious and ask questions. However, our sneaky brains want to generate questions that will lead us towards more familiar destinations and confirm our hypotheses so as to reduce discomfort and perceived risk.
“Because most leaders get stuck when they’re dealing with intractable problems, or with problems so murky that every answer leads both somewhere and also nowhere, they tend to find themselves…asking simple questions about solutions and next steps.” (p. 16)
We need to ask new and different questions that we don’t know the answers to. These are ‘mindset-shifting’ questions. Consider what mindset you are bringing into a particular situation: a mindset of scarcity or abundance, of threat or opportunity, of curiosity and openness or focus and action? It is not that these mindsets aren’t helpful, but that we benefit from stretching out into new mindset territories when dealing with complex situations.
For example, if you notice that your mindset and questions are focussed on threats and the need to make a quick decision and act, you may want to open up to explore different ways to understand and act in the face of the threat. Instead of “What needs to be fixed?” or “Who is at fault?” consider “What else could go wrong?” or “What would happen if I acted/didn’t act in this way?” Or you could ask questions about the opportunities we have in the face of the threat: “What is the very best move to make here?” or “If I had one bet, where would I place it?” To really stretch, you might shift from the narrow focus on the threat to a wider exploration of possibilities: “How could we take this tragedy and create a better future?” or “What are other ways of looking at this?” (see p. 17)
Sometimes (well, often) we have mindsets about the people that we are working with and for (e.g. he is disruptive, she is too challenging, they are unfocused, she is hard-working, he is creative, they are calm under pressure, etc). The authors suggest that we benefit from noticing these mindsets and then shifting them to consider: “What if this person wasn’t a problem for me to solve, but a key knowledge holder for me to understand?” and “What is it that this person knows about the situation that could shift or change my mind and how might I find this out?” (p. 65). In making this shift, we begin to think of new and different questions that help us connect with new knowledge, understanding and possibilities, and build relationships. “It’s not enough for everyone to hang out by their own particular truth pools: we need the largest shared pool possible. If you want to learn and you want the other person to learn, you can have a different kind of conversation, the kind in which you are each asking different questions” (p. 71) that gather data, feelings/reactions and impact.
In making this shift, we begin to think of new and different questions that help us connect with new knowledge, understanding and possibilities, and build relationships. “It’s not enough for everyone to hang out by their own particular truth pools: we need the largest shared pool possible. If you want to learn and you want the other person to learn, you can have a different kind of conversation, the kind in which you are each asking different questions” (p. 71) that gather data, feelings, reactions, and impact.
Asking new and different questions can also help us when we are evaluating the different possibilities for action. In the VUCA world, we need to get better at innovating. With that comes the likelihood of missteps, failure, and learning. In a predictable world, we would ask questions such as, “Did this work before?” But in the VUCA world, we need to create a safe-to-fail space so we ask questions that help us understand the risks and rewards (as we don’t want to be reckless), such as, “How might this fail and how bad would it be?” and “What could we learn from this whether successful or not?” (p. 154) and “What processes can we put in place to listen well to what is going on?” (p. 170).
Being open to failure and learning takes us to another set of new and different questions about ourselves, which relates to Carol Dweck’s work on fixed and growth mindsets that I spoke about in an earlier post. People with a growth mindset are more orientated to their own growth (and the growth of others) and are much better at learning and recovering from failure than people with a more fixed mindset. As such, they do better in the VUCA world. Like most leaders, they will ask themselves, “Who am I and what am I good at?” but they will go beyond this and ask, “Who have I been and who is the leader I want to be next?” (p. 177).
These questions fuel a growth mindset that helps leaders become self-transforming “who handle complexity with the most grace because their openness to learning and to questioning their most fundamental assumptions gives them the largest set of possibilities… seeing new options where others are hopeless, finding areas of commonality where others see only opposition” (p. 182). Research also suggests that these are the people who can effectively lead organizational change.
The good news is that by asking new and different questions we can nurture our own growth mindset and development, while also becoming more skillful leaders now and supporting the growth and development of the people that we work with. Given that we are in a VUCA world, that seems like a pretty good combination.
You may also want to check out…
The authors’ consulting website which includes a number of articles and blog posts that tested out the ideas in this book, as well as their research, podcasts and videos.
The article, Why Leaders Who Listen Achieve Breakthroughs by Elizabeth Doty. When we ask new and different questions, we have to be prepared to listen to whatever arises.