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people holding posters with signs such as "No to Dirty Energy, Stop the Climate Crisis" at the People's Climate March in NYC in 2014
Management Assistance Group

This tool, and others in our series Tools for Leading in Complexity, have been used in the field with our clients and partners successfully. They are adaptations and expansions of others’ learning* and they are works in progress. 

The Role of Leaders In Complex Systems

Today’s justice leaders, organizations, and networks are operating in a complex ecosystem. This means that our practice is more and more emergent and unpredictable. It requires frequent experimentation, risk-taking, and ongoing learning. Success is no longer achieved by following mechanistic steps towards fixed goals – instead, it’s marked by adaptation to a changing environment.

The role of leaders in complex systems looks quite different as well. Leaders have four primary roles they can play for ensuring the health and effectiveness of an organization or network:

  1. Set boundaries
  2. Encourage dissent and diversity by focusing on significant differences
  3. Design transforming exchanges
  4. Foster small experiments and monitor for emergence

Attending to these is the leader’s job in complexity. But how? 

Putting Ideas Into Practice

This tool is not a step-by-step guide for how to lead in complexity. Instead, it offers a set of tactics and questions that you can use by yourself or with others for reflection and action.

The tool outlines the four roles of leaders in complexity discussed above. For each, it offers a set of tactics for carrying out each role and guiding questions for getting started. We’ve found that this tool is useful in a variety of settings including: when engaging in a planning process; building a network; developing strategy; structuring management teams or steering committees; developing other leaders; and reflecting on your own leadership style and competencies. It can be used at the beginning of a process to help guide it and is a useful companion to revisit throughout any process. You can use it alone or as a group brainstorming tool with fellow leaders.

We recommend working on all four related roles simultaneously and starting only with the actions that are most aligned with where you are at the moment. You might find it helpful to print this tool and write out your responses to the questions.

A note before you get started: If you are already pretty comfortable with the concept of what we mean by complexity, dive right in. If not, you may find it helpful to do a quick complexity 101 review. 

1. Set Boundaries, Limits, and “Containers”

Setting boundaries means defining the system – where the system starts and stops. We know that systems are connected, nested, and layered. But it’s your job to carve out the boundary lines of your system – knowing that the boundaries are porous. A leader can also set smaller containers within larger boundaries and can alter boundaries previously created. Changing the boundaries of a system affects the environment, redefines the work, and raises new possibilities for how people can work together to effect change. Here are six ways to affect the boundaries of a system:

A. Decide what business we are in: Determine your purpose – a rough understanding of the direction you are heading. This is the most important limit of all.

Guiding Questions: Why are we here as an organization or network? What makes us unique?

B. Set new specifications and “simple rules:” Determine what the starting conditions are and help support people self-organizing and self-regulating within them.

Guiding Questions: What organizational, behavioral, conceptual, and/or physical boundaries can we set to help us generate new patterns in our system? What are the minimum guidelines we can set that will lead to new ways of operating and productive outcomes?

C. Distribute control: Share control in respectful and trusting relationships. Be transparent about issues of control and decision-making.

Guiding Questions: How can we distribute decision-making authority? How can I help? What do you need?

D. Build small containers for faster self-organizing: To meet urgent needs, create small containers within your system. They can be bounded by time, space, membership, and/or project focus. Isolate the work from existing practices and forms of organization to speed-up self-organizing.

Guiding Questions: What do we need to do to meet that deadline or emergent need? What are the minimum guidelines we can set that will lead to productive outcomes? What guidelines are needed to enable the self-organizing already organically occurring? Who is interested in and important to include in the innovation? How can we support them to diverge from the status quo?

E. Stretch boundaries: Expand your frame or diversify the actors engaged in your system in order to access new ideas, networks, and power. Perform small experiments to stimulate learning (more below in #4).

Guiding Questions: What’s missing? What external networks do we need to be part of? What questions are we not asking? What low-risk, low-cost experiments are possible now that might generate learning?

F. Shrink boundaries: Reduce individual variation and communication with the broader system. This could mean consolidating individuals into teams or making agreements at the team or department level.

Guiding Questions: What can we ignore over the short-term? Where are people naturally shrinking their boundaries to execute the work more efficiently?

2. Engage in Significant Differences

Engaging significant differences means intentionally bridging differences among stakeholders that most influence patterns in the system. These could include power, race, gender, class, etc. While there may be many differences, your job is to identify which ones are most important at this moment in time to catalyze change.  By focusing on them, leaders can gain a more dynamic view of the system and various ways to influence it. By bringing stakeholders together across these differences, one can create possible paths forward that reconcile and transcend these differences.  Here are four ways to engage significant differences:

A. Explore contradictions: Elicit different viewpoints. Acknowledge and maintain polarities (i.e., opposite ends of a spectrum) to generate transformations.

Guiding Questions: How else might we think about this? Who is missing from this discussion?

B. Accept conflict and raise tough questions: Conflict generates transformation, growth, and learning. Without any conflict, we confront stagnation and decline. Surface conflict by raising tough questions. Tell stories that help people to redefine success and encourage new actions.

Guiding Questions: What are you holding back? What do you really think?

C. Encourage diversity in the system: Adapting to changing environments requires internal diversity – of insights, backgrounds, and experience — that matches external complexity.

Guiding Questions:  Who else needs to be at the table?

D. Understand significant differences in external environment:  Continually scan the environment for innovations and information, including declining trends, to affect internal evolution.

Guiding Questions: What innovations will create a new pattern for the organization?

3. Design Transforming Exchanges

Designing exchanges means fostering interactions among stakeholders in the system to transform their relationship as well as the stakeholders themselves. These interactions can be related to significant differences, boundary creation, small-bet experiments, or other factors. Here are four ways to create exchanges among stakeholders:

A. Encourage feedback: Every person needs ongoing feedback about the self and the organization, starting at the top.

Guiding Questions: How am I doing? How are we doing?

B. Encourage individual level learning by creating connections to others: Develop ways (e.g., training, linking communities of practice) to connect people internally and externally for mutual learning, support, idea generation, and personal and professional development.

Guiding Questions: What are your questions? Where might you look for answers? What resources are needed to facilitate learning? What professional networks do you use? Which need to be created?

C. Open up the discussion: Develop skill in creating interactive, multi-level discussions to help leaders with idea and strategy generation, decision-making, and execution.

Guiding Questions: Who needs to be involved (for optimal quality, ownership, and pace)? What skills do we have to manage the conversation efficiently and well? What skills do we need? How can we get them?

D. Join, create, or reconfigure (loosen or tighten) networks: Networks are key to impacts greater than a single organization can accomplish alone.  Determine which are most important to join or create.  Develop trusting relationships within and across key networks. Networks need to be closed enough that people can connect meaningfully, but not so tight that they exclude critical members. 

Guiding Questions: Is information flow optimal? What networks need to be talking and acting with one another? What networks do you (we) need to be part of and why? What role might we play in these networks?

4. Foster Small Experiments

This is a way to quickly harness emergent ideas.  The job of leaders is to identify opportunities to try some things out – make “small bets” – and reflect on what works and why. Know there will be unexpected results and failures – hold these while learning from each experience. Here are three ways to feed promising experiments:

A. Manage starting conditions: Create an environment in which good things can emerge vs. trying to bring about predetermined results.

Guiding Questions: Do we have the culture, resources, and people needed to foster innovative and emergent ideas and actions (within boundaries of our purpose, values, and capacities)?

B. Stimulate probes and experiments: Test an approach or idea. It is not necessary to design these to succeed, but to create insight and understanding about what’s possible. Contradictory experiments can be running in parallel.

Guiding Questions: What could we do that wouldn’t cost much or risk much, but from which we could learn about promising directions? 

C. Monitor for emergence: Probes and experiments should be carefully monitored.  Ones which resonate with key stakeholders and which show promise are enhanced and receive more resources.  Ones which do not show resonance and promise are ended or transformed quickly.

Guiding Questions: What would be indicators of success or failure? What strategies would amplify successful experiments? What strategies would enable recovery of failing experiments? How will we track and decide about the course of experiments? 

Want More?

MAG’s The Role of Leaders in Complex Systems Change is a useful companion resource to this tool and explains some of these concepts in greater detail as well as other useful tools.

*Adapted with appreciation from the work of Snowden and Boone (“A Leader’s Framework for Decision-Making,” HBR, Nov, 2007), Olson and Eoyang (Facilitating Organization Change: Lessons from Complexity Science, Pfeifer, 2001), and Curtis Ogden of Interaction Institute for Social Change.

Photo Credit: South Bend VoiceCC BY-SA 2.0