Our lives, and the world, seem to get more complex by the day, so leaders must quickly learn to think in complex systems.
Far too many of us look for simple answers and quick fixes. We are trained to look for formulas and shortcuts, and we have a huge intolerance for uncertainty. Here is what that sounds like in a pandemic right now:
And…far too many of us think in terms of all or nothing. Here is what that sounds like right now:
These statements are all examples of looking for simple answers in a complex situation.
Leaders, however, must think differently. Leaders must think in systems, and leaders must be able to hold the tension between competing values and dichotomies.
There are no easy answers, formulas, or quick fixes, and almost nothing is binary.
Our political leaders often give us easy answers and quick fixes because we want to hear them.
The reality is we live in systems. Systems are a collection of seen and unseen interdependent variables that all affect other parts of the system. When something happens to one part of the system, the rest of the system is affected.
Our families are systems. Our churches are systems. Our organizations are systems, and our communities are systems. All of these systems are also variables in other systems. Our bodies themselves are systems. Systems are naturally complex, which is why there are no simple answers, formulas don’t work, and certainties aren’t…certain.
An example of a simple system is following your grandmother’s chocolate chip cookie recipe. You do the same thing each time, and you’ll get the same result. An example of a complex system is raising a child. What happens when we try raising a child by following a formula? This is the answer to that age-old question of how your second child ended up so different to your first.
So why are so many of us trying to apply simple systems solutions to complex issues like a global pandemic?
When leaders think in simple systems, they try and copy what worked in another organization, church, or community. They get frustrated when things don’t turn out like expected. They look for someone or something to blame. They feel the pressure to choose sides. They compare their family to other families. They can’t manage the expectations of multiple interest groups because they are looking for the single right answer. When leaders think in simple systems, they can’t figure out why things didn’t turn out this time as they did in their previous job. When people expect quick fixes and simple answers, we get frustrated with leaders when factors beyond their control change.
When leaders think in complex systems, they can realistically manage expectations by increasing tolerance for uncertainty. They see the context around situations and then can influence the entire context and maybe even change the system. They look for and address causality and stop running around treating symptoms and putting out fires. They can hold in tension various competing values and dichotomies and not look for the single answer. Spiritual leaders can help people depend on a completely sovereign God in a world that we can’t control.
Our lives, and the world, seem to get more complex by the day, so leaders must quickly learn to think in complex systems. If we continue to look for and apply simple answers to complex systems, we will change nothing. However, if we learn to put on different glasses and see the complexity behind every situation, only then can we hope to influence change.
For more information on complex systems, leadership and change:
Nelson, Gary V., and Peter M. Dickens. 2015. Leading in Disorienting Times: Navigating Church & Organizational Change. Columbia, SC: TCP Books.
Westley, Frances, Brenda Zimmerman, and Michael Quinn Patton. 2006. Getting to Maybe: How the World Is Changed. Toronto, ON: Vintage Canada.
Meadows, Donella H. 2008. Thinking In System: White River Junction, Vermont: Chesea Green Publishing.