leadership in chaos

In our wake up call I wrote in mid-2020 that complexity and chaos are the new normal as climate change drives more crises our way — pandemics, refugees, environmental disasters, and the overall degradation of our environment. To prepare for chaos, we need people who can act. Identify these people and give them experiments or skunk-works to play with. We will need leaders who can also deal with complexity. They will have to be constantly experimenting and probing their ecosystems. Organizations who are serious about surviving any ‘post-covid’ normal will have to take a hard look at their leadership and management structures. The time to change is now, not when the next crisis strikes.

By early 2021 I identified our crisis in network leadership and asked how many organizational leaders today are in the same situation as the inadequate officers in the Canadian Army who were unfit for post-invasion reality in June 1944. By the end of August of that year, two brigade commanders and five commanding officers had been removed as they were deemed unsuitable for leadership.

This year, I concluded in managing to lead in complexity that while many of our professions and organizations can deal with some complexity, few are adapted to deal with chaos on a large scale. Chaos — violent political action, climate change, pandemic — require structures that promote curiosity and resolve. With frequent chaotic events to deal with, we have to organize in temporary, negotiated hierarchies that can quickly form and re-form in order to test novel practices. The ability to do this requires diverse thinking, open structures, and trust among those doing the work. Now is the time to get these in place.

In a recent article, Dmytro Yarmak shares his experience of shifting from IT, as an agile coach and becoming a military officer in the Ukrainian Army. He explains how the Cynefin framework helped him understand the chaos of battle and complexity of war.

“I knew how to lead in complexity, according to the Cynefin framework. I should embrace uncertainty and shouldn’t worry about changing plans every 30 minutes. I just had to make small quick planning of the act and then act without waiting. And then sense the results of the act, get feedback, become smarter, and do another activity. And so on.

In contrast, my colleagues in similar positions in the Ukrainian army told me that they worry that they cannot communicate plans and other things. They spent a lot of energy and were nervous about it. I tried to help them by explaining that they simply shouldn’t worry about plans being ruined, that this is a norm in the Chaos domain. Sometimes they listened to my advice and felt much better.” —Dmytro Yarmak

One advantage Yarmak has is that he is not hindered by standard military doctrine, being a new officer with minimal training. Instead, he has learned from the realities of the current war. The challenge for any organization facing emerging complex and chaotic challenges is how to enable and support new ways of thinking. How many managers or leaders today have a mindset that understands chaos?

“Knowing the Cynefin framework also helped me in another way. If you are in the Chaos domain there are no best practices as your context changes. So if something worked before there is simply no guarantee that it will work again or in your dynamically changing environment. So you should be really careful when someone insists on best practices. This helped me to calmly ignore suggestions that I felt would not work. And instead of an imaginary ‘silver bullet’, act and create new practices.” —Dmytro Yarmak

I offer online masterclasses on network leadership to develop a common framework and language to accelerate knowledge sharing in organizations. The status quo is no longer adequate.

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