Working with complexity & ambiguity

In recent times, the world has experienced unanticipated and unprecedented amounts of change in every facet of life, including political, economic, social, environmental and technological. Organisations are seeing big shifts in customer expectations and competition. They are required to contend with exponentially greater levels of ambiguity, complexity, competition and uncertainty. And, all the signs suggest that the global business environment will be characterised by increasing uncertainty and complexity.This new and evolving external context means that existing leadership approaches and thinking are unlikely to serve as effectively going forward. Instead, the myriad of changes within the external environment calls for a different type of leadership. Those qualities, skills and behaviours that have made individuals and businesses successful to date will no longer be sufficient in an increasingly complex, volatile and uncertain future world.So what will this require of leaders?

In order to not only survive but rather thrive in a highly dynamic, unpredictable and demanding context, adaptability will be an important skill for everyone, not the least for senior leaders.

Successfully navigating and adjusting to these change requires a deep understanding of oneself, their core drivers and motivators, their unique strengths and values, their weaknesses and those environments and situations that enable them to be at their best.

In addition to having a very nuanced and granular understanding of their own psychology, adaptable leaders are highly aware of and attuned to the world around them. They pay attention to the subtle shifts in themselves and their environments and the interplay between their inner and outer worlds in order to learn, reflect and shift their thinking. Knowing themselves deeply enables leaders to more effectively read and respond to external cues and events.

Those leaders who are best able to adapt possess a genuine and unwavering appreciation of the value of those around them, knowing that they alone are unlikely to hold the solutions to the complex and multi-faceted problems they encounter. They know how to harness and leverage diversity and invest time and energy in nurturing both broad and deep networks within and external to their system.

Adaptable leaders are also able to regularly and rigorously challenge and refresh their assumptions and beliefs. In psychology, we use the term cognitive flexibility to describe the mental ability to switch between and think about multiple concepts simultaneously. Cognitively flexible leaders can view complex situations from a broad range of potentially conflicting perspectives. They shift their thinking based on new information or demands, letting go of and replacing habitual or out-dated views. They are not overly wed to their own position.

They are comfortable with not having all the answers, instead knowing which questions to ask in order to shift the conversation and facilitate a collective, context-appropriate solution. This may not come naturally for many leaders who may have historically prided themselves on their clarity of direction, decisiveness, problem-solving and decision-making capability.

Finally, adaptable leaders not only build their own capabilities in this regard but they ensure that they are fostering cultures in which individuals across the organisation are flexing this muscle. They are committed to building and sustaining collaborative and democratic cultures that encourage risk-taking and experimentation at all levels.

 How can you enhance your adaptability?

Although the best way to foster adaptability is through a targeted program specific to your context and style, below are a couple of quick tips that may help you better navigate change and uncertainty in your life.

  1. Practice reflective awareness:

Notice how you are feeling emotionally, physically, and mentally as well as your immediate environment moment to moment. Mindful meditation can be a great way to develop this. Regularly try to step out of the busyness of daily life to “get on the balcony” and objectively see what is happening around you.

  1. Learn from and leverage past experiences

Think through times when things have not gone to plan and you have had change and uncertainty thrust upon you. How did you manage this?  What beliefs and values supported you? What did this test in you? What did you learn about yourself? What do you personally need to hold onto and let go of in order to better adapt to change?

  1. Perspective taking

Try to take new and different perspectives to known problems and situations. Keep testing your own assumptions, holding your views lightly.  Explore a range of hypothesis around what might be going on. To help you do this, think about those that you naturally consult on issues and try to expand this to include those that might think quite differently to you.

  1. Draw on your networks

Identify those people who you believe to be early adopters of new thinking and ways of working. What can you learn from them? How can they support you?

  1. Learn to learn

Recognise that you will never stop growing, learning and evolving. Look for small opportunities daily to learn something new or try a different approach at work. 

  1. Embrace not knowing

Grow your tolerance for the unknown and challenge yourself to stay within your “discomfort zone” for longer. Resist the natural temptation to remove the ambiguity and bring clarity, order and existing solutions to situations.

  1. Be prepared to fail

Look for opportunities to experiment and take small risks in your thinking and actions. Accept that you will make mistakes and see these as valuable opportunities to learn, reflect and adapt.

Please contact us if you would like to learn more about how Optim works with executives, teams and groups to help them develop their ability to adapt to what comes their way.