"You're paid to deliver." The burden of expectation upon leadership

This blog is in response to comments on an earlier entry which warned of the dangers on mismatching problem types and problem solving tools.

The commentator, William Fisher, suggested that a more ordered (Complicated/Simple) approach to business management was prevalent for most of the previous century. William then proposed that this style was too narrow for contemporary challenges, and passage to a broader range of approaches is required to allow for management of the Complex and the Chaotic.  Organisations unable to make this journey will fail. William then quotes data from Deloitte displaying the ever increasing mortality rates of businesses at depressingly youthful ages. Already many have  already been unable to tack in response to the shifting wind.   

The necessity to review the science of management is held widely amongst the complexity cognoscente, andfor the majority, intellectual satiation has become the terminus.  Nonetheless leaders need practical support on how to cope with these new prevailing conditions as they sail their organisations between chaos and cosmos. 

Little guidance exists on what leaders should do to make management of Complex Adaptive Systems manifest, but the starting point is admitting that not everything is knowable.  To put it bluntly, business plans have bounded benefit, and recognising these limits will be painful—at least in the short term.

Perhaps the heaviest load modern leaders carry is the requirement to guarantee delivery of results. Driven by the historical backdrop of growing economies and consumer aspirations, boards of directors and shareholders have become use to stable and predictable growth in business performance.  The expectations of consistently reliable performance has cascaded down to senior and middle management, all of whom are expected to deliver the bottom line.  Guaranteed. No ifs, buts or maybes’. Believing we have an accurate picture of the future has led to casualties.  Some of the best corporate swimmers, over-confident in their ability, have failed to cope with the rip-tide.  Pragmatists who cling to the wreckage seem best able to survive. 

The business media is moving on. Headlines announce the passing of the steady-state economy, and managing ambiguity is the latest fashion in the glossy magazines.  It all looks rosy and enlightened—except if your a line managers. 

Line manager know some of the theory, but what of the practice? What are the implications for a leader of a $500m business unit within a sophisticated, global, high-performing company who has budgets to organise and delivery on an annual basis? 

The recommendations on pragmatic practice are still emerging but it is increasingly clear that you: 

1. Have to be an outstanding leader of the Complex, without losing control of the Complicated and Simple. It is unlikely that you been trained for this, but you will need to learn quickly.

2. Must deliberately build a culture of tolerated failure where one has previously never existed.  This new culture has to be  supported by formal processes; The concept of safe-to-fail experimentation focuses on a shaping a desired result rather than predicting one. It recognises that the path to achieving this are varied, and many may be tried.  There is no ‘one way.’ It is not anarchy. You are not striving to hit a bull’s-eye by throwing a limitless number of darts while wearing a blind fold. It is directing resources with deliberation, with certainty of purpose but uncertainty of outcome. 

3. Acknowledge that progress on managing the Complex will be limited without the intellectual and practical support of your line managers. To develop their trust and build your confidence, you will need early wins of reasonable value. This means identifying small projects to practice upon yet whose resolution will lead to measurable and communicable business improvement. 

A two-page starter pack for initiating a process for managing the Complex can be found here.