There’s an old Taoist story. It teaches that the answer to everything that goes apparently well or badly is maybe. ‘I got a new job. That’s great, isn’t it?’ Maybe. ‘I just crashed my car. That’s terrible, isn’t it?’ Maybe. The reason for maybe is that we don’t know the wider context or consequences of any encounter or event. We cannot predict all the ripple effects, some of which may continue down through the years or into completely different relationships or parts of the world. What we construe as a curse in the moment may turn out to be a blessing in disguise and vice versa. It’s complex.
Some of this is about framing and re-framing. We can view the same situation, the same moment, through different metaphorical lenses and see what different pictures emerge. Take, for instance, a change in any team in any organisation. The change will have pros and cons – and different pros and cons depending on which stakeholder perspective we or others view it from. It could touch on, say, wider roles, relationships and resources. Maybe depends on viewpoints and values: who is impacted and how, what it means psychologically and culturally and how it feels for them and others.
Maybe is also about time lags and time-frames. A change that creates pain now may result in positive benefits in the future or vice versa. An action we take here and now could trigger unintended consequences, a chain reaction down the line that we could never have imagined or anticipated. As such, maybe calls for openness, curiosity and humility. It calls us - and clients - to learn to approach 'knowing' and 'certainty' in tentative spirit, particularly in fluid (VUCA) environments. For me, it calls for prayer and patience too, to seek God’s insight and wisdom. What does maybe mean for you?
‘People look for HD photos whereas what’s really possible is dots on a page.’
I met with an insightful strategy consultant last week who used this ingenious metaphor. We live in an era where leaders face increasing complexity, ambiguity and uncertainty. This can evoke anxiety, risk-aversion and paralysis in decision-making. Against this backdrop, it’s tempting to attempt to increase our certainty by gathering and analysing exhaustive (sometimes exhausting!) reams of data, information and evidence. It’s as if we may want and need to see a high definition photo where every detail is present and crystal clear before feeling confident enough to take a step forward.
I do get it. There are good reasons for basing decisions on research and evidence, especially in high-risk environments where to do otherwise could be reckless at best and dangerous at worst. Or if we miss great opportunities because we hadn’t looked well enough before leaping…or failing to leap. But what if such situations are the exception rather than the norm? What if ‘sufficient’ evidence is unavailable, or if it would take more time or other resources to gain it than we can afford, or if conditions are so complex and fluid that today’s truth fades quickly into tomorrow’s jaded history?
Picture this alternative. A blank sheet on which we place dots. We can place them wherever we want. The dots represent what we do know, what we have a gut feel for, what we could reasonably find out – if needed. We can add, remove or move dots as things progress. We can experiment with reconfiguring the dots into different, creative, shapes and patterns. We can play with colouring the space between the dots, around the dots, to see what picture, what possibilities, what passions emerge. I love this idea of the dots. Of joining the dots. Of steps in faith. Of creating future.
It’s tempting to think the world has gone crazy. A crisis in one place followed in quick succession by a crisis somewhere else. Yet situations and events that appear completely unrelated can look mysteriously connected once we pause, step back from the dramatic media rhetoric and look more deeply. ‘What is really going on here?’, ‘What is influencing what?’, 'What patterns and links are forming?'
McDermott & O’Connor in ‘The Art of Systems Thinking’ distinguish between: simple complexity (e.g. a car engine that is complicated because it has numerous parts - yet it parts interact predictably and in fixed ways) and dynamic complexity (e.g. human systems such as families, teams, communities, nations etc. where different parties not only interact but change and influence each other).
Dynamic complexity at a global level is being accelerated and amplified by technology and social media that enable people to connect, interact and influence each other faster than ever before. As Wheatley explains in ‘Leadership & The New Science’, however, this does not necessarily create ever-increasing chaos. It’s as if even complex human systems find their own equilibrium and flow.
So what does this mean for leadership, OD and coaching? Firstly, look beyond the issue itself to inquire into ‘what else’ is creating and sustaining the conditions for it to arise. Secondly, view human systems in terms of relational influence rather than mechanics. Thirdly, be curious and responsive to what and where energy is emerging and shifting. Fourthly, be ready to let go - and dance!
Gone are the days when we could think of ourselves, our teams and our organisations in splendid isolation. We now discover, abruptly at times, that everything is interconnected, everything is interdependent. We see impacts of global markets on domestic markets and vice versa. We see impacts of national and international policy on local people. We see sudden, unexpected changes that come out of nowhere, traceable only in retrospect, that dramatically shape our lives and work.
In the third sector where I’ve spent most of my professional life, we used to think of, say, human rights, international development and environmental issues as completely separate. We now see them as integrally related. Make a change in one area and it impacts on people and communities in another area - or in another part of the world. We can’t always see the connections but we can certainly feel them. This makes the world more complex, less predictable, less certain.
A pervasive atmosphere of complexity and uncertainty can evoke personal, social, economic and political anxiety. Leaders and ideologies are emerging across the globe that offer simplistic solutions, often at the extremes, that create a comforting illusion. They may help us sleep more peacefully, live more purposefully. Yet they ignore, dismiss or suppress aspects of reality that don’t fit their simple narrative. To break free from this, we must learn to surface and live with uncomfortable truths.
A stark example: witness the rhetoric in the UK and other Western nations this year in the face of unplanned, large-scale migration into Europe. Social media is filled with heated debate. ‘They’re all helpless refugees – rescue them!’ vs ‘They’re all terrorist sympathisers – reject them!’ It poses an either-or, black-white choice. To say, ‘It’s complicated. It calls for a sophisticated response’ sounds like a cop out, a refusal to take sides, a stance devoid of passion, a betrayal of a cause.
So we find ourselves facing an existential crisis, created and fuelled in part by a perfect storm of influences. These include: spread of Islamic extremism, growth in right/left wing nationalism, intolerant illiberal liberalism, gross economic inequality, unprecedented global awareness via the internet, powerful social media, more failed states, huge displacement of people, alarming climate change. It can feel perplexing, confusing, debilitating. How to take a stance in the midst of all this?
Adrian Spurrell (Synapse Solutions), my professional mentor, has been a persistent voice of challenge and support this year. ‘We can be driven by fear or by hope. Choose hope.’ It reminds me of hope in the Christian gospel too – a faith I experience as real – when we affirm the birth of Jesus Christ. It’s a mysterious faith that holds onto hope, is held onto by hope, often in the midst of hope-lessness. May we know peace and hope this Christmas time and the courage to stand in 2016.
Nick is a freelance coach, trainer and OD consultant specialising in reflective practice.