The 21st century has been anything but predictable. Experts have long been touting the need for a complexity mindset. But the pandemic completely overturned any remaining sense of normalcy and constancy we may have been clinging to.

Businesses have been born, destroyed, rearranged and upended due to the pandemic. Companies have been forced to adapt to changing worker expectations, new health standards, hybrid work situations and plummeting retention rates.

We are living in a world that can best be described by an acronym coined by the US military: VUCA.


Volatile The business landscape is rapidly changing in ways that cannot be predicted.
Uncertain When change is frequently revolutionary rather than iterative, the past is no longer a predictor of the future.
Complex Understanding or explaining trends or issues is increasingly difficult due to many highly interconnected factors.
Ambiguous There are no precedents from which to draw.


In conditions like this, there is no playbook comprehensive enough to cover every problem or challenge. There’s no way to develop rules or strategies for every possible scenario. You can’t plan a strategy for the unknown.

What you can do is develop a complexity mindset in yourself and in your employees. A complexity mindset helps you adapt to unpredictable change. It lets you shift quickly in the face of sudden and unforeseen challenges, and remain stable as a company and as a team.


Think Holistically

Living in complexity requires you to think on an organisational level. A mechanistic mindset assumes a company is like a machine with a linear process and clear causes and effects. There may be components or your company that work this way. In reality, the organisation is a complex web of systems, each interconnected at multiple connection points.

This is important when addressing any challenge to step back and view that challenge in the context of the entire organisation. Likewise, to grow your company, you have to recognise that great ideas may not necessarily come from the top tier or your organisational hierarchy. It’s important to separate authority from creativity. Authority has hierarchy. Creativity doesn’t.


Treat the Cause, Not the Symptom

Part of thinking on an organisational level is diagnosing problems properly. Most issues that become visible, especially staff issues, are symptoms of an underlying problem. If you only treat a symptom, you may at best temporarily alleviate issues. At worse, you let a deeper problem go untreated.

For example, you may have an employee who has started to miss project deadlines too often. The old mindset might be to address the employee and put them on a performance plan. The complexity mindset withholds judgment and investigates. Maybe something changed in the employee’s personal life. Perhaps there is a communication problem with a superior. There could be any number of reasons your dependable employee suddenly became undependable. A complexity minded leader will identify and resolve the deeper problem.


Prioritise Company Values

You can’t make rules for a situation when you don’t know what the situation is. It’s impossible to make a plan for every possible unknown scenario. That’s why it’s important to create firm, foundational company values. Make sure everyone on the team is aware, if not even living them.

When people are following rules, they’re unable to make decisions in unpredictable circumstances. But when people are following values, they are agile and able to make judgments in unexpected situations based on the core values.


Own Up to Not Knowing

It’s a persistent myth that leaders need to appear in control and all-knowing. The flaw in clinging to control is that control is an illusion, especially in this post-pandemic state of unpredictability. As mentioned, adaptability is superior to rule-following in an agile workplace. That means leaders must let go of ego and control in order to remain flexible and retain the respect of their employees.

It’s okay to say, “I don’t know.” It’s even better to invite the ideas of the team members in your organisation. The complexity mindset recognises the value of letting go of control and encouraging collaboration.

Fostering a complexity mindset in yourself and your team will keep your company strong and moving forward. It’s important to recognise that complexity is not a temporary situation. It’s the world we live in, now. Adapting to that reality will help you and your company succeed.

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