Unwinding Complexity. Should we Really?



I recently had a great opportunity to engage some colleagues in a conversation about complexity.  See photo above. We had some fun with the nature metaphor. The photo immediately reduced us to heavy sighs, congested airways and prickly vibes.  “Not really something I’m interested in tangling with,” shared Sue.


Yep. It has pointy parts, dense intersections, clear gaps and confused directions.  All true.  But, the other thing that is inherent is that it’s a growing, nourished system. Not the first place we go when looking at a photo like this. 


The same can be said for our complex organizational systems – and the people who engage within them.


As the world becomes more complex, organizations become more complex AND people become more complex. Often, our instinct is to reduce the complexity by trying to unwind it to its simplest, manageable parts. In fact, this analytical dissection can be perceived as a leader feat.  The critical thinking clearly has value.  However, is this what we should be serving up in our leadership quest? While an exercise of good intention, it more often than not satisfies a short term, secondary need but may not cultivate the growth of the system.  True – sometimes doing a little pruning encourages new growth, but changing the condition can stunt the growth.  And that’s what happens when we reduce something from a state that makes us think and perform more deeply to one that simply requires we follow along.


Why do we do it? We have our reasons. Sometimes we think leaders in our systems don’t have time to “figure it out” on our timetable or we’re focused on the need to “guarantee” the best possible outcome of evenness and consistency by controlling the parts.  And while we might get some of that, what we’ll also have in the end is compliance to a formula, not deeper thinkers, innovators and problem solvers – not the learned, adaptive behaviors that prime for higher functioning and emerging leader performance.


So, when you get the urge to unravel the very thing that may challenge your team to their next best level of operating, consider holding yourself back, and


  • Watch what they do. 
  • Listen to what they say. 
  • Notice when your support can launch their next level thinking and action.


Hold the space for them to move their minds to explore the airy gaps, the “pointy” parts, the dense intersections and the nourishing growth spots – because that’s what’s going to feed theirs.


The tangle will be well worth the time. 

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