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  Leading in a Complex Community Initiative

“It is not a good time for control freaks,” writes Brenda Zimmerman, with her co-authors Michael Quinn Patton and Frances Westley, in their recent book, Getting to Maybe: How the World is Changed (Random House Canada, 2006).

The world, with its rapidly changing and evolving systems, is too complex for those who like to manage the individual components of a defined process or system.

But it can be a good time for those who are able to live with uncertainty and embrace complexity.

She asserts that there are ways in which we can address the sense of “being stuck” and create major transformation in our work, in our communities, and in the world.

On this page, Brenda explores the challenges and opportunities inherent to working in complex systems. She looks at some key characteristics of leadership in uncertain times, and lays out several important principles for leading in complex systems.

On this page you’ll find:

Meet Brenda Zimmerman

Brenda ZimmermanBrenda Zimmerman is an associate professor at the Schulich School of Business at York University and the founding director of York’s Health Industry Management Program. She is the author of many articles applying complexity science to organizational strategy and change, and a co-author of the book Edgeware: Insights From Complexity Science for Health Care Leaders. She is also co-author, with Frances Westley and Michael Quinn Patton, of the book Getting to Maybe: How the World is Changed.

Brenda’s gifts for scholarship, teaching and writing have brought many advancements to complexity and the management field and reached many practitioners and policy makers.

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Living with Uncertainty

In Getting to Maybe, Brenda and her co-authors write, “It is not a good time for control freaks. But it is a good time for those capable of living with uncertainty.” She sees times of uncertainty as opportunities for innovation and creativity.

Getting to Maybe book coverIn a linear model, there are limited points of connection, and each connection depends on the next, like the links of a chain. The whole system is only as strong as its weakest connection, so we constantly fear collapse. In times of great uncertainty, with a complex model, there are many, many points of connectedness which lend flexibility and stability. They also allow entry into the system from myriad points, and this means that there is an entry point for everyone. The more people are at the table, the greater the scope for creative solutions.

This challenges the dominant rhetoric of the hero, the great leader, and places the onus for change on the rest of us. Small changes, in a complex system, can have big effects.

In times of uncertainty, Brenda says, there is a greater spirit of experimentation – people are more willing to try new things, as it becomes clear that the old ways of dealing with issues are not working. At the same time, we have to be more attentive to detail, and take the time to reflect more carefully as we act.

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Leading in Complexity

What does it mean to be a leader in complexity? It means accepting that certain aspects of our work are inherently unknowable. It means accessing the wisdom in our communities, rather than being the 'Big Brain' leader who provides the wisdom. It means not beating up on ourselves when we can't figure something out.

Leadership in complexity requires different skills than traditional models of leadership. It requires us to think of leadership as inquiry, and this in turn means that we need to think much more critically about the kinds of questions that we ask. It may not be the answers that need changing, but the questions. A convergent question, one that leads to a specific answer, has a very different effect from a divergent question, or one that allows for a more creative, more open space for answers. Seeing leadership as inquiry also lets us accept that we don't have to have the answers to every question; the questions themselves are at least as important.

A key skill for leaders in complex systems is pattern recognition – knowing when the answers to divergent questions are leading to something new.

Another key element of leadership in complexity is hope. Brenda distinguishes between hope and optimism. Optimism implies an expectation that a particular result will occur, while hope is more general, an attitude that seeks the possibility in everything. While optimism can lead to disappointment and frustration, hope is more resilient, and keeps us moving forward to the next possibility.

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Key Principles for Leadership

In her paper, “Nine Emerging and Connected Organizational and Leadership Principles,” Brenda describes 9 key principles for working in complexity. They are:
  1. View your system through the lens of complexity
  2. Build a good-enough vision
  3. When life is far from certain, lead with clockware and swarmware in tandem
  4. Tune your place to the edge
  5. Uncover and work with paradox and tension
  6. Go for multiple actions at the fringes, let direction arise
  7. Listen to the shadow system
  8. Grow complex systems by chunking
  9. Mix cooperation with competition

These principles are not a checklist, where each item stands alone. Instead, they are factors that complement each other as part of a more holistic model. The principles work together and feed into one another.

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Exploring the Principles

Brenda walks us through five of the nine principles in greater detail. The deeper we delve into any one principle, the more we realize how interconnected the nine principles are.

Build a Good Enough Vision

We strive for perfection, but it is all too possible to get tangled in the quest for the perfect solution. We have to realize that the overwhelming majority of strategies are not implemented as planned – and this does not necessarily mean that they are failures. Building a vision that is good enough to get the work started, and then developing the vision further as the work progresses, means that the work can be anchored and yet flexible. We build the road as we travel, but we never travel without a map.

This does require much greater attentiveness: the thinking and reflection continues throughout the process, not just as a 'planning' stage at the beginning.

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Uncover and Work with Paradox and Tension

Paradox – as opposed to contradiction – is inherent to the realm of complexity. In a paradox, both sides of a statement are true; in a contradiction, one must be true and the other must be false. If we can accept that both sides of the paradox confronting us are true, then we can look at the various perspectives on it in a new light. We can recognize that perspectives that seem opposed are actually working on the same issues, and in recognizing this, we may be able to help align them.

Paradox and tension can reveal exciting insights and opportunity, if we engage with both sides of the paradox rather than trying to ignore them.

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Go for Multiple Actions at the Fringes

Rather than focusing on best practices, which imply a certain linear progress and a 'right way' of doing things, working in the complex means that we need to encourage action and experimentation to arise anywhere in the system. This means that we need to have a much tighter feedback loop between thinking and action, as the situation is constantly evolving.

If we do not follow this approach, there is a very real danger that those on the fringes will feel disempowered and begin to become the enemy. Perhaps they will become apathetic, simply withdraw their support, or actively work against us.

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Grow Complex Systems by Chunking

In a complex world, a blueprint-style plan that requires us to implement whole systems can be very problematic. Systems grow naturally one piece at a time. Accepting this allows us to evaluate these 'chunks' as they emerge, keeping what works over time, and pruning back what does not.

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Mix Cooperation with Competition

In our 'nice' sector, we usually aim for cooperation – but competition can help spark innovation. We can over-cooperate, losing the edge that is needed to come up with creative ideas.

In fact, competition happens in the voluntary sector anyway. Turf wars or competition for funding can be destructive, but striking a better balance between competition and cooperation allows for creativity and innovation.

For example, business competitors cooperate to reap the benefits that credit cards can bring them. They cooperate on key elements that will help everyone thrive. But they compete with each other on everything else, reaping the benefits of both cooperation and competition.

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Resources & Links

Nine Emerging and Connected Organizational and Leadership Principles – Here you will find summaries of nine specific, action-oriented rules of thumb for leading in a complex environment. Each principle is accompanied by insights from some of the leading thinkers in complexity science.

Getting to Maybe: How the World is Changed – In this book, authors Frances Westley, Brenda Zimmerman and Michael Quinn Patton lay out a brand new way of thinking about making changes in communities, the business, and the world. Written for ordinary people who want to make connections that will create extraordinary outcomes, this book looks at complexity theory to make the impossible happen.

Complexity: A Conversation with Brenda Zimmerman – Brenda joins us to talk about about social innovation and leadership principles within complex systems.

A Complexity Science Primer – This introductory paper, an excerpt from Brenda's book Edgeware, gives a context and a base-level understanding of complexity science and its relevance to human organizations.

New to Complexity? – The Plexus Institute website covers the science of complexity, the history of complexity science, stories about how leaders have used complexity-based management approaches, readings on complexity-inspired organizational theory and leadership, and opportunities for face-to-face learning with others who share your interests in this emerging field.

Panarchy: A Conversation with Frances Westley – Brenda's co-author of Getting to Maybe, Frances Westley, introduces the concept of panarchy. Panarchy is a model adapted from biology that describes complex, interactive, and adaptive systems and how they change over time.

Change-ability.ca – A selection of Brenda's other articles is available online.

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Audio Description

Interview: Leading in a Complex Community Initiative

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Audio Description

Q&A: Leading in a Complex Community Initiative

Run time 00:32:58