Summary of Simple Habits for Complex Times

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Simple Habits for Complex Times book summary

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Consultants Jennifer Garvey Berger and Keith Johnston present a challenging series of recommendations that will make you think until it hurts. They emphasize that survival and success in a VUCA world – one with volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity – means you have to do what is difficult and often counterintuitive. Read and digest each chapter, reflect on it, discuss it and then move on to the next. In implementing the authors’ ideas, follow their advice: Gather varied perspectives, listen, experiment, learn, adjust and repeat. They show you how to work your way toward an agile, alert and ever-adapting organization.

Take-Aways

  • Leaders have grappled with volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity (VUCA) for millennia, but circumstances differ today.
  • Get used to asking new and genuine questions.
  • Complexity abounds. Address it, but don’t add to it. Sort your challenges into one of two categories: probable or possible.
  • Strive to see complex systems as a whole. Ask how the components combine to lean toward certain outcomes.
  • Though you may know little of what the future holds, set a clear and unambiguous direction.
  • People think rationally and emotionally. The mix of many people’s logic and feelings adds up to the best decisions.
  • Help people develop greater capacity to accept and engage with VUCA.
  • Eons of natural selection coded you to act first and think later. You must adapt to a new world that demands the opposite.
 

Summary

Leaders have grappled with volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity (VUCA) for millennia, but circumstances differ today.

Today, unlimited information and data confront leaders, much of it flowing in real time and changing by the minute. Leaders must consider more factors than they can predict by relying on the past. Consider what is possible in an unknown future.

“This rise in complexity, ambiguity, volatility and uncertainty is not just lingering around the edges of our workdays; it’s everywhere.”

Evolution made people pretty good at making decisions according to what worked in the past. But in many circumstances, previously reliable understandings no longer apply. Now you must consider a range of possible scenarios, but knowing when and how to do that kind of thinking doesn’t come naturally to many people. Mastering this necessary new skill means forming new habits of mind.

Get used to asking new and genuine questions.

Avoid asking questions whose answers you think you know or questions whose answers you’ll ignore. Ask considered questions you truly want answered to open a broader range of possibilities and paths. People want to find a problem’s cause and make changes to fix it. This might work for a simple problem, but often fails in complex systems. Many problems defy simple solutions.

“It’s totally possible that this task of leading in times as complex and volatile as today is a bigger stretch for us humans than anything else we’ve ever had to do.”

Think through your organization’s system and consider how changing something in one part might affect other parts. Don’t expect to solve complex, systems-based challenges alone. To get into the right mind-set, ask different questions, and force yourself to consider other people’s perspectives, especially those that differ from yours. Resist classifying people into allies and enemies. Realize that people believe in the truth and efficacy of their own position. Stay curious.

Complexity abounds. Address it, but don’t add to it. Sort your challenges into one of two categories: probable or possible.

Adding more processes, rules, forms and procedures often make so-called solutions worse than the problem itself. If you have a simple problem, don’t seek complexity. You might, for example, believe that your firm suffers from a weak leadership pipeline. A new, complicated HR system to address it could cost a lot of money and frustrate the situation even more by requiring managers to create extra paperwork, track more metrics, hold more discussions and so on, taking even more time away from identifying and mentoring potential leaders.

In many cases, the past provides sound guidance. But just because tulips bloomed in mid-April last year doesn’t mean they will bloom this April, and a volcano that erupted 100 years ago and has a record of erupting only every 1,000 years or so could still blow tomorrow. Some problems fall into the category of probabilities, and that makes them simpler. Others depend on many variables within complex systems. Those reside in the more complex world of possibilities.

“In every complex system, feedbacks are the lifeblood, the way that evolution and change begin and spread.”

Before looking for solutions, consider where the problem falls: probability, or possibility? Even complicated systems respond predictably to adjustments and refinements across many components. Recognize these systems, and apply solutions that you base on past knowledge.

Problems within complex systems don’t yield to discrete cause-and-effect-based solutions. Multiple variables cascade, combine and change. This level of complexity requires continual research, data models, investigations and experiments. You must detect even weak signals. Instead of seeking cause and effect, look for subtle, emerging patterns so you can intervene before they become steamrollers. Traditional planning matters – but in complex systems considering multiple perspectives, gathering diverse ideas and experimenting can replace the search for solutions to specific problems.

Strive to see complex systems as a whole. Ask how the components combine to lean toward certain outcomes.

Complex systems incline toward some things and resist others. A system of child protective services, for example, inclines toward the collective, prevailing habits and behaviors of many organizations, people, processes, rules, culture and practices. When it fails, it results in a spike in foster child abuse. Unless you find something specific, like an employee who deliberately ignored child protection rules, no single solution or silver bullet will fix it. Most problems in such a system are systemic problems.

To address systemic problems, seek multiple perspectives on the issues and try to see the big picture before you start testing solutions. Nurture an environment of feedback, experimentation and openmindedness. Emphasize learning, and reward people for testing, failing, adjusting, trying again and iterating their way to improvements. These problems require a series of experiments that you follow up with learning, adjusting and additional experiments that will nudge you closer to understanding possible solutions.

“Clarity is a core communication goal, and you can be clear about your direction even if you can’t be clear about your destination.”

Agile organizations must master giving and receiving feedback up, down and throughout the organization. Difficult conversations don’t come naturally. They take practice. Fight the notion that you know everything, though leaders resist this attitude change. Don’t view the people to whom you give feedback as problems you have to solve. Approach all conversations as learning opportunities. Ask, “What do I have to learn here?” This mind-set shift – whether in a performance review, casual conversation or meeting – changes how you perceive others and the questions you ask.

Enter every interaction with the attitude that you will learn something. Remember that what you know, no matter how right it feels, is always only part of the truth. Ask other people for facts and evidence first, without judgment. Get them to say how they feel about an issue, and ask them to describe its impact. You may have good information, but you still have to learn from it by truly listening, which can be as difficult as providing sound feedback. The secret to good listening is to shift from thinking about what people’s words mean to you and considering what their words mean to them. Learning to listen deeply – not while planning what you’ll say next – takes conscious effort and time.

Though you may know little of what the future holds, set a clear and unambiguous direction.

The people you lead crave clear direction and priorities, especially in volatile, changing times. But in complex systems, leaders can’t know enough to articulate a clear vision, define a precise course of action or set the priorities that their people need to go forth and execute. Given many perspectives and ideas, leaders must set a clear direction – a path on which people can experiment and learn constantly, within boundaries their leader defines.

Start with a shared vision, not a snapshot of the future or a set of targets, but establishing a direction that moves your organization toward the story you want to tell. Connect your vision to purpose and values. Listen to people, collect their viewpoints and ideas, and be aware of their signals, even weaker signals. Consider what your organization and system lean toward doing – the inclinations – and how they may need to change. Move inclinations through change gradually, with nudging and experimentation.

“You need to understand that the future you’re moving toward is so ambiguous that you couldn’t possibly know what will happen, yet you have to be clear enough about what it is that you can get people off the course to which they have become accustomed.”

Consider the boundaries within your organization. These boundaries – explicit and implicit – define people’s behaviors and your culture. Get people’s perspectives on the boundaries, and then define and document these parameters. Decide which to keep and which to discard. Make sure everyone knows the boundaries within which to conduct “safe-to-fail” experiments. To inspire trust, communicate a clear direction, admit what you don’t know and explain how you feel about it.

Describe what you mean by a safe-to-fail experiment using examples from the past – celebrate what leaders and employees did that worked, and explain what they did that failed. Emphasize learning, and align people around the boundaries so that their efforts move in the broad direction you set.

For example, Facebook rolls out changes continuously to small percentages of its users to gauge the impact of its experiments. These safe-to-fail experiments protect current attractors – their user interface, for example – and test new ones, such as a possible Facebook cryptocurrency.

Run small experiments in parallel, and choose some that turn out contrary to your expectations. Repeat them at different times and in different contexts. Make them fast and cheap, invite as many diverse perspectives as possible, and design them to produce clear, measurable results.

Motivate people by describing the journey as one of stages rather than one with a structure of due dates or specific financial objectives. For example, if you aim to cut costs by 10%, instead of announcing that goal, talk about experimenting in a direction of greater efficiencies. Acknowledge the fundamental role that emotions and feelings, as well as rationality and irrationality, play at work.

People think both rationally and emotionally. The mix of many people’s logic and feelings adds up to the best decisions.

You may think you can divorce your feelings and subjective notions from your decisions, but you can’t and you don’t, so acknowledge the role of emotion and utilize it. Even your so-called rational brain falls prey to many biases. Among the most prevalent, confirmation bias makes you unconsciously seek only information that supports your position. Recency bias puts undue importance on the latest thing you’ve seen or read.

“The human brain has an enormous capacity not only to not see the whole picture but also to not notice that it hasn’t seen the whole picture.”

A bias toward the visceral makes you worry more about low-risk dangers – like a shark attacking your child – than about dangers that occur much more often, such as drowning. When you are leading, fundamental attribution errors can cause you to ascribe good or bad events and outcomes to people while you underestimate the influence of circumstances. You can’t detect these and other biases. Remain aware of them, and seek other perspectives and viewpoints to counter them.

Help people develop greater capacity to accept and engage with VUCA.

People evolve through stages of development. Some leaders and employees will continue to rage against uncertainty while others mature, accept it and know the firm must adapt. A few will welcome and celebrate VUCA. These people have leadership potential because they tend to adopt the most creative solutions after synthesizing many people’s perspectives.

Don’t hire only the smartest people. Look for those who have demonstrably learned from failure. Encourage people to mature and grow in the way they deal with uncertainty by supporting their interests as well as the organization’s goals. Hold people accountable for their results, but not to the degree that you limit experimentation and risk taking, or leave no time for learning and development. Encourage healthy competition among your workforce, but not at the expense of collaboration or of stifling people’s willingness to listen and consider other perspectives.

“A core desire people have from their leaders is direction and a sense of safety that someone knows where they’re all going. This is especially true in times of change.”

Learning and work are not separate. Weave learning into personal work and teamwork, all the time. Assign work that stretches people and teams. Encourage genuine questions in meetings. Ask people to share at least one thing they’ve learned.

Eons of natural selection coded you to act first and think later. You must adapt to a new world that demands the opposite.

Create a curious, learning-first, “feedback-rich organization.” Make it safe to share positive and negative feedback – good and bad news – up, down and across the firm. Share a constant flow of information with all employees. Communicate with logic and emotions, facts, feelings and honesty. Listen deeply.

About the Authors

Jennifer Garvey Berger and Keith Johnston run a global leadership consultancy from New Zealand. They emphasize organizational readiness for success in a VUCA world.

This document is restricted to personal use only.


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Comment on this summary

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    M. K. 1 month ago
    Awesome book.
  • Avatar
    A. H. 2 months ago
    Very good ideas!
  • Avatar
    A. H. 2 months ago
    Very good ideas!
  • Avatar
    J. S. 2 months ago
    Very articulate and a good read.
  • Avatar
    S. E. 3 months ago
    Good ideas for managing myself
  • Avatar
    B. C. 7 months ago
    Excellent material!
  • Avatar
    P. P. 8 months ago
    Great material!
  • Avatar
    N. R. 8 months ago
    Some very valuable points!
  • Avatar
    S. A. 8 months ago
    Well articulated
  • Avatar
    G. A. 9 months ago
    Very good. Concise takeaways and relevant examples for all management levels.