Nancy Glynn's picture Submitted by Nancy Glynn May 17, 2017 - 8:38am

The world is not getting any simpler. We believe we have created modern environments that are somehow within our control. But the truth is that the markets and operating environments in which we perform are as complex as the natural environments from which our ancestors sprung. Our working environments share with the rainforest and other natural systems volatility, ambiguity, diversity and interdependence – all of which are key drivers of complexity. 

‘Simplifying’ complexity in these conditions is less effective than navigating complexity. In any complex challenge or situation there are parts that are straightforward, parts that are complicated and parts that are truly complex. The question is how does a leader develop and cultivate the capabilities to navigate complexity?

This is easier than we might think. We are ourselves complex beings, born with capacities to operate and thrive in complexity. The number one capability to dust off and cultivate is Sensemaking. Sensemaking is what we do as infants and young children. We try something, we experience it, we have a result, we reflect in the moment and we respond – think of learning to walk or talk, or understanding what it means when something is ‘hot’. By repeating this cycle over and over again we discover the world. Growing up we have been socialised and educated to predict, plan, execute and monitor with an extraordinary reliance on analysis. And as an adult, especially as senior leaders, we move from this innate ability of sensemaking & discovery to operating exclusively through clear strategies and hardwired plans. These capabilities remain of great value and essential in leading today, but they are not enough and at times will be counter-productive when navigating complexity.

In complex situations, a leader gains more by formulating hypotheses and alternative strategies, testing them in the environment, experiencing, course correcting, and achieving outcomes in an iterative, emerging, collective process. Sensemaking is getting to know the actual terrain, not relying on the map that he or she has created, or that has been created through exhaustive analysis. Sensemaking is listening and welcoming diverse views about the terrain, the lay of the land and how to navigate it. It is collective, collaborative and enriching.

Leadership and coaching are themselves complex environments. Working with a client I develop my capacities to sense a situation, keeping an open mind and attitude to allow them to paint a complete enough - and realistic enough - view of the lay of the land. I form hypotheses and test these as lightly as possible to allow space for the client to choose or generate his or her own hypotheses. The client can then build approaches that he or she tests and chooses to mitigate if unhelpful and enhance or intensify if productive.

In order to make sense of complexity, a leader wants to grow in his or her own consciousness and stretch mental and perceptual capacities, as do we as coaches. The number one way to do this is by building reflection into your life and your work as a leader. Through reflective practices  -  including Mindfulness - you increase your ability to listen and integrate others’ views, understanding your own and others’ biases that are preventing inquiry, clarity and integration of essential viewpoints. This leads to a different way of seeing and approaching challenges and opportunities. Tapping into our innate higher-order human abilities as leaders, we will develop more capacity and greater ease in navigating a complex world.

Want more? Watch Nancy's CoachX on Leading Through Complexity!


Hi Nancy

I really enjoyed your video and the metaphors you used - feeling the stones to cross the river. I was wondering if there are any other tools you use to help your leader clients develop their mental stretch? I'm thinking adult development stage theory here, and some of the corresponding tools, but I was wondering if you use anything else?

Best wishes,