In today’s turbulent landscape, change is multidimensional. Leaders must consider speed and scope of change, along with multiple forces buffeting organizations from all directions—new technologies, increasing difference, expanding markets, increased customer and employee expectations, fiscal meltdowns, political battles. Leaders and organizations respond quickly to remain sustainable in today’s unpredictable landscape.
The study of human systems dynamics teaches that sustainability requires a system to adapt to whatever it encounters, as it holds its mission and values. An organization’s ability to thrive depends on its adaptive capacity, requiring it to be
- Sensitive to changing patterns,
- Flexible in response, and
- Robust to withstand multiple challenges.
In our book, Dynamical Leadership: Building Adaptive Capacity for Uncertain Times, Kristine Quade and I offer a model of leadership built on assumptions about organizations as complex systems. While some of these may sound counter to traditional approaches, they express a worldview of human system dynamics that honors inherent complexity of organizations in the 21st century and explain why adaptive capacity is crucial today.
Life is a tapestry of different textures and colors. The pattern becomes visible because of unique differences from one yarn to the next. Human interactions are similarly woven through life, play, and work. The messiness inherent to human systems makes sense to dynamical leaders, and they see the tapestry that is their organization.
As the beat goes on complex systems organize toward “fit.” Interactions among individuals are responses and counter-responses. One individual shifts, calling for adjustments by others, triggering reactions elsewhere. This balancing act is continuous and simultaneous, creating a system-wide rhythm as the beat to which dynamical leaders are specifically attuned. They know the beat continues as long as the organization is open and vibrant.
There is no “there” there as patterns emerge continuously, whether or not they are watched. A system doesn’t self-organize toward a single point that signals some arbitrary conclusion. Rather, the system’s goal is fitness in a constantly shifting environment, responding to demands, seeking new opportunities, and finding new vistas. Dynamical leaders expect this and don’t wait for it to settle down or stop changing. They value this “dance” between the organization and its environment as necessary to sustainability.
Coherence is as good as it gets when work aligns with values and people across the system respond in similar ways. Dynamical leaders recognize there is no “perfect state,” and sustainability cannot be judged against external measures. The most useful measure of sustainability reflects coherence among parts of the system.
Things will go “bump” as difference within a system creates tension when individuals collaborate, build trust, or acknowledge fear. Tensions also emerge as the organization “bumps” against its environment. The goal of adaptive capacity is not to eliminate tension; it is to understand sources of tension, learn to negotiate their impact, and move forward.
There is magic in fractals as some patterns reverberate throughout the system. When similar behavior is observed in leaders, groups, and individuals, it is a fractal pattern. Behavior of senior leaders may be replicated at various levels in multiple ways. To influence a fractal at one level leverages work at others, magnifying impact of an intervention, increasing adaptive capacity.
Power is abundant, and multiplies as it’s shared. In complex systems, power is the ability to influence, and is no longer associated only with position or title. Everyone can influence, and as they do, creativity and efficacy are unleashed. Sharing power is not about leaders abdicating responsibilities or accountabilities. It is honoring individuals’ abilities to contribute to overall performance.
We believe there’s no silver bullet for today’s complex leadership dilemmas. We also believe, however, there is a path leaders can take to:
- Increase ability to thrive in today’s turbulence,
- Support others in contributing to sustainability,
- Respond productively to shifting needs, and
- Step into powerful roles as dynamical leaders in a complex world.
Director, The Network
Steve Wolinski provides leadership development, organizational change and talent management services to numerous public, private and non-profit organizations.