Tag Archive for: challenges

Simple Habits for Complex Times: Powerful Practices for Leaders

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:

  1. Ask different questions
  2. Take multiple perspectives
  3. 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.


Carol Dweck has had an extraordinary career at Columbia, Harvard and now Stanford universities, and she has spent decades researching and exploring how we learn, develop and grow. She is fascinated by the perseverance of infants as they learn to talk and walk, despite the challenges and setbacks. She is also curious about why people stop challenging themselves and arrest their learning potential. She notes that contemporary brain research confirms that we each have much more capacity for lifelong learning and development than previously thought, and yet many people don’t continue to grow. What makes the difference?

Carol’s decades of work has been beautifully summarized in her book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success (2006). Her research has shown that “the view you adopt for yourself profoundly affects the way you lead your life” (p.6). She describes two kinds of mindsets – fixed and growth. People with a fixed mindset believe that their qualities and attributes, such as intelligence and talents, are “carved in stone” and there is not much you can do about it other than you had better keep proving that you have these enough of these traits to not feel deficient. In a fixed mindset state people avoid challenges, given up or get defensive when faced with an obstacle, reject critique and feedback (too threatening) and may resent the success of others. Their reactions are not because they are ‘bad’ or ‘lazy’ or ‘resistant’ or ‘passive aggressive’ but because there is so much at stake in their sense of identity! Carol notes her own school experience where IQ scores were everything. Her 6th grade teacher organized the class by IQ scores and used this to determine who could be trusted with a task and who couldn’t. The message was you are either smart (and you better keep proving it), or you are stupid (and that is the end).

By contrast, a growth mindset “is based on the belief that your basic qualities are things you can cultivate through your efforts. Although people may differ in every which way – in their initial aptitudes, interests or temperaments – everyone can change and grow through application and experience” (p.7). She is not proposing that we all just have to apply ourselves and we can be and do anything we want. Rather, she is suggesting that “a person’s true potential is unknown (and unknowable); that it’s impossible to foresee what can be accomplished with years of passion, toil and training” (p.7). Growth mindset individuals embrace challenges, persist in the face of setbacks, value effort towards mastery, learn from critique and are inspired by and learn from others. Seems to me that Cindy Blackstock and Melanie Mark are growth mindset people.

One of my favourite excerpts from the book is this:

“Why waste time proving over and over how great you are, when you could be getting better? Why hide deficiencies instead of overcoming them? Why look for friends or partners who will just shore up your self-esteem instead of ones who will also challenge you to grow? And why seek out the tried and true, instead of experiences that will stretch you? The passion for stretching yourself and sticking to it, even (or especially) when it’s not going well, is the hallmark of the growth mindset. This is the mindset that allows people to thrive during some of the most challenging times in their lives.”

Dweck goes on to describe how we go from being that persistent, growth-oriented infant to having a fixed or growth mindset as we develop. She illustrates how this influences the running commentaries in our minds and how we judge our experiences and situations (remember the discoveries some of you will have made in The Work exercises and in the mindfulness practice). And in so doing, she challenges conventions and beliefs in parenting, education, hiring practices, coaching, supervision and leadership, and offers ideas and insights about how to cultivate a growth mindset, such that a “passion for learning” is encouraged. Here are a few ideas:

  • Pay attention to your own inner dialogues and whether they reflect judgments such as “I can’t do this” vs “I am not there yet”. Explore different messages you can give yourself that could inspire a growth orientation, e.g. “I am struggling, but I can figure this out in time. I have figured things out before” or “my job is to learn from critique – I am not flawed – just on the path to learn more.”
  • Exercise the brain through learning new things. This sounds simple, but the brain is more like a muscle and it develops and grows new connections and capacity through challenge and novelty.
  • Whether as a parent, coach or a supervisor, shift from recognition of intelligence, talent and achievement to recognition of effort, persistence, problem solving, collaboration, etc – whatever was applied by the person to achieve results. This is ‘process’ praise rather than ‘results’ praise.
  • If you have faced a setback such as not getting your dream job, notice your reaction (e.g. blaming such as “they are threatened by me” or self-judgment such as “I knew I wasn’t cut out for this” or shocked such as “I thought that I was the wonder-child around here” or resilient “well that is disappointing but I will try again”). Take a step back to think about your goal and what you can do to stay on track towards achieving it – e.g., “Who can I talk to to get feedback? How might I incorporate the feedback. What might I need to learn before the next try. What additional information do I need?”
  • As a leader, consider the questions, “What are the opportunities for learning and growth within my team today – for myself, for my team colleagues?” “How can I enact a plan for learning and growth?” For example, can you change the format of your team meetings so you discuss case or program challenges and help each other through them, or offer a short TED talk? Can you approach supervision differently?
  • Be mindful of fixed and growth mindset talk and behaviours and respectfully offer growth alternatives and challenges (to our family members, people we serve, colleagues, etc).

And a final example of why this matters now as we consider equality: Carol talks about how kids living in poverty, on reserves, or in vulnerable neighbourhoods are often assumed by educators and others that they will not perform well. However, her team’s mindset interventions have resulted in dramatic shifts. Schools creating a growth mindset culture have gone from the bottom of their district to the top in spans of 12-18 months. Children went from being discouraged by effort and difficulty to being encouraged when faced with situations requiring effort as they understood that their “neurons were firing and they were getting smarter” – effort makes a difference.

A brief 10-minute introduction to Carol’s work (and some of her results within the education system) is in this TED talk: Carol Dweck – The power of believing that you can improveYou can also check out her informative website.

2020 Reflections – Finding Fellow Travellers

This week I spent three hours with my friend and mentor, Al Etmanski. Al is a social activist and innovator extraordinaire, author of the recently published book Impact (see the weekly read below), world leader and connector in social innovation – and he will be with us for the 2020 Social Impact gathering on October.  I have known Al since 1986 when I was a naïve but earnest public servant working as the Provincial Coordinator for Deinstitutionalization. Al was a larger than life and passionate leader in the disability movement that had, with others, raised awareness about the state of institutional care, painted a picture of positive options, and successfully poked, prodded and inspired the government to close the three institutions of the day and develop a community-based care system.  Our working relationship was difficult at times – me being in the middle of a government bureaucracy with limited resources and high expectations, and he being a progressive leader in the community and a passionate parent. I often didn’t know what to do or how to do it, but Al was a good teacher and there were lots of amazing people involved.  We figured some stuff out along the way. However, as is often the case, I didn’t really grasp the depth of the learning until much later. 
Fast forward a few decades and I am the ED of the Federation. Al calls to invite me onto the Premier’s Advisory Council on Social Innovation and Entrepreneurship. I am sceptical of government’s intentions – is this about offloading responsibility or unrealistic expectations for the community sector? We talk and he understands my fears, and I trust him and his intentions.  What happened on the Advisory Council is an interesting and positive story for another time, but what has been most important to me is re-kindling a relationship with Al, and in the process learning to give voice to ideas, fears and questions.
What Al does brilliantly is listen, question, connect and reflect. He readily admits that he wasn’t always this way, and that in the past he fractured some working relationships, but he intentionally cultivates these practices now. He has learned that it is critical to creating positive social impact. He has an immense depth of knowledge and experience, but he never makes you feel anything but interesting. He asks wonderful questions and seeks to understand, and in so doing, has helped me give shape and form to some of the ideas and questions that I carry. He is also humble – willing to share stories of his own crises of faith and in so doing has given me permission to share my own doubts and frustrations.  This is not done just to feel better about ourselves, but rather to think bigger about ourselves. To his core, he, and his wise partner Vicki Cammack, believe that the tough, complex, and intractable social, economic and environmental issues that we face can be addressed. And they don’t just talk about it – they are out in the world wrestling with the work, generating and testing action, failing, floundering and trying again.
In 2020 we talk about great leadership being participatory, and I gained a more nuanced understanding of this after my conversation with Al. As leaders and change-makers, we need to be skillful engagers and collaborators as we cannot do this work alone. However we also need to create bonds with people who are, as Al says, ‘wise travellers’. These are the people who: can challenge and disrupt our thinking and practice; who can accept us in the times when we are excited and flushed with the delight of seeing an idea come to life or some good happening in the world – and make it even better; who accept us when we have fears, anger and doubts, and can craft a safe container for exploration of it all; who connect us to our ideas and to others and their ideas.  He notes that innovation often arises from and at the margins – with people who hold different views and have had different life experiences and are not often welcomed into the centre. This is one of the key teachings in the final residency of 2020 – as leaders in this field we have both an opportunity and a responsibility to set the table for diverse views and perspectives in order to co-create social impact. It has been interesting to consider who the wise travellers are in my life, and who I need to ‘set the table for’ to challenge my thinking in these times. What about you?