Stepping Into Complexity

Over the past two weeks, I’ve been fortunate enough to work with some talented managers in both London and Shanghai. They’re all facing a major business change in the form of a system implementation which will significantly alter their core business processes and keep them competitive. Think of it like when banks moved to online banking – it’s a similar magnitude, in the shift in both mindset and process. It’s big, complex and potentially messy.

This won’t all happen overnight, and they’re charged with keeping business-as-usual running smoothly while preparing to take themselves, and their teams, successfully through the change. Sound familiar?

Our work together was about helping them to begin to make sense of the changes ahead, to understand their role in it all, and to build the confidence and capability to navigate it successfully.

In each location, we spent three days together. After initial presentations by senior leaders on the ‘why’ and ‘what’ of the changes, there were many questions from the managers about the detail of how things were going to work. When would X and Y be rolled out? What can and can’t we do? What if Z happens? What will we do then? Understandable questions, to be sure.

For most of these questions, the answer from the senior leaders was “We don’t know. We need you to help us figure it all out.”

“We don’t know.”

Not words you’d expect from a senior leader. Don’t they have it all worked out? Isn’t that why they’re paid the big bucks? What do you mean, they don’t know? Where’s the plan?

Of course, with the organisation moving into brand new territory and addressing a challenge like this, no-one has all the answers, or even half of them. It’s an example of what Dave Snowden calls a ‘complex challenge’, rather than a ‘complicated’ one (with ‘complicated’, there’s a right answer – just find an expert to help you). With complex challenges, the answers emerge through trying things out and learning from what happens.

It was refreshing to hear those words: “We don’t know.” They were authentic, honest, and they gave permission for a new mindset to emerge.

Here’s the beautiful thing. On the morning of the third day, the managers had got it. To quote one of them:

“I came in with a huge list of questions I needed answered. Now I know I don’t need all the answers. I’m OK with working it out as we go along. I’m going to lead my team to try some new things, see what works, and learn from our experiences. I’m on board.”


It’s a common challenge. Most managers are being asked to embrace and lead in ambiguity and complexity these days. What helped these managers ‘get it’? I think there were a few factors at play:

  • Plenty of information about the nature of the challenge was provided (“It’s big, complex and potentially messy”).
  • Senior leaders were fully present, and were authentic and honest about not having all the answers (“we don’t know”).
  • Expectations about managers’ involvement were clear (“we need you to help us work it out”).
  • Plenty of time was allowed for ‘sense-making’ (three days of semi-structured conversation, not just a half-day download).

We focused on some critical skill-building (e.g. storytelling) to help them begin to play their part (I’ll expand on this in a future blog).

What’s your approach when you’re faced with “big, complex and potentially messy” changes? How do you help your people to ‘get’ the nature of the challenge and to step into the role they need to play?

Try some of these ideas and see what emerges…

Dig Deeper Newsletter

Sign up with your email to receive weekly leadership insights, tips, and inspiration from Digby.

Thank you! Your submission has been received!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.