What Leaders Need to Understand about Complexity

Clear Impact Consulting Group
12 min readOct 3, 2021


In all our work, whether we’re engaged in executive coaching, leadership development, or team/organizational effectiveness consulting, we look for ways to help our clients make better, faster, and more agile decisions in conditions of increasing VUCA (volatility, uncertainty, complexity, ambiguity) and rapid change. How can they respond more successfully to the complex challenges that are increasingly facing them?

Our goal for many years has been to find practical, actionable models that help them think and then act more effectively. We have found David Snowden’s Cynefin Model to be one of the most useful models.

This model introduces the idea that there are four “problem sets” that leaders face: Simple, Complicated, Complex, and Chaotic. Most actual problems have a combination of these. Here are the key insights:

1. We do not get a choice which problem set we are facing. Our only choice is whether we approach it with the right way of thinking and then acting, or not.

2. Most leaders have a favorite problem set and then approach all problems using this method. The old metaphor of, “If you’re a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” Or, better, “If you’re most comfortable with a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” Rather than shifting their approach depending on which problem set(s) they are facing, they prefer one strategy and then try to fit all leadership situations in that box. This creates unnecessary challenges, wastes time and effort, and leads to suboptimal results.

3. Each problem set requires a different strategy in how we think and then act. Snowden refers to these as different ways of sense-making. That’s a good term, because each of the four “problem sets” needs to be made sense of differently to respond most effectively.

4. Leaders are facing increasing VUCA (volatility, uncertainty, complexity, ambiguity) and rapid change. Having a model to help them understand how to best approach such situations is essential.

We will be introducing the practical parts of the Cynefin Model that we bring into our professional work, focusing most of our attention on the Complex domain, because that is where most leadership challenges lie.

The Right Side of the Diagram

The problem sets on the right side are radically different from the ones on the left. Snowden called these Ordered. They have in common an underlying set of rules or laws that are constant, dependable and inflexible: electricity, mechanical, engineering, physics, etc. Because we can rely on these laws, the same approach applied multiple times will get the same results (unless something has actually changed, like a power failure which also can be understood using the same laws). This is true whether the problem is in the Simple domain (how to fill out an expense report, or follow a recipe) or the Complicated domain (how to build a bridge or fix an airplane). That is, if you had 10 identical airplanes, and applied a certain “fix” 10 times, it would work every time or fail every time.

Simple System

  • These have the most clear cause-and-effect relationships. They are easy to understand and easy to teach, e.g. how to fill out an expense report or follow a recipe.
  • The solutions are linear and rational. Simple problems lend themselves to ”best practices,” with standard processes and clear measurement.
  • In Simple Systems, once we know what something is, we know what to do with it. Frederick Winslow Taylor’s Scientific Management improved efficiency by breaking everything down into simple, repeatable steps. Fast food franchises, for example, can do well with high employee turnover because each step is clearly laid out and easy to train.
Photo by Jeff Sheldon on Unsplash

Complicated System

  • Complicated problems still have a clear relationship between cause and effect, but it takes considerable training to understand that relationship, and analytical techniques to determine a good way forward. This is the area of experts and expertise, and the realm of good practice, rather than best practice, because different experts may come up with similarly good solutions to the problem.
  • Complicated systems lend themselves to detailed planning before taking action. Building a bridge, fixing an airplane or other engineering problems are good examples. Each of the parts are known, including how they work together, but it still takes experts to figure out the right sequence and how to respond to different conditions that may arise.

Here is the important part: Most leaders are trained to be good at Complicated problems. They map out timelines, deliverables, etc. in any number of different ways. Both individually and with their teams, they spend a great deal of time trying to figure out the “right” or “best” approach to a particular issue. The problem, as we’ll see, if that the best way to deal with Complex problems is very different from this. But to a hammer everything looks like a nail, and leaders who have learned how to deal well with Complicated problems will tend to apply the same approach, wasting a great deal of time and leading to suboptimal results.

Photo by Alex Pugliese on Unsplash

The Left Side of the Diagram

Complex System

  • Complex systems have an interrelationship between cause and effect that cannot be predicted in advance, although in hindsight whatever happens will make sense.

This is because:

  • There are too many different factors and interactions to take them all in account.
  • The elements of the system (the rules and the agents) change each other as they interact, so they continually co-create each other.
  • Sometimes a seemingly small factor has an extremely large effect. For example, one of the authors would likely not be in this career had it not been for a particular decision on a particular day by the lead guitarist of a major rock band (ask us!).
  • People often say that the Complex realm has too many variables and not enough equations, but this is not a good way to view it. That’s the Complicated realm trying to make sense of the Complex realm. Unlike the Complicated domain, where the variables are fixed, in the Complex domain the variables keep changing each other, as well as changing the rules that govern the system.
  • When a result happens in hindsight it makes sense, but if the same “causes” were applied again a different result would likely emerge.
  • As we’ll see, there are a couple of key terms. The best solutions emerge over time, as we take action and notice what happens. We therefore dynamically steer our approach by starting with workable or safe-fail actions and then gathering steering points that allow us to agilely adapt our strategy toward our desired goal.
Photo by Windows on Unsplash

Chaotic System

  • This goes beyond what people normally think of as Chaos. It is rare. In a Chaotic System all hell has truly broken loose.
  • There are no rules, or at least no clear ones. The situation is novel and it’s a crisis. Think of some of the recent situations where an apartment building collapses, a tornado springs up, or a torrential rain suddenly turns roads into rivers.
  • There are no obvious cause and effect relationships, and the leader’s role is to first take action to try to stabilize the situation. Once stabilized it likely becomes a Complex System.
  • Some leaders thrive in chaotic environments, but then have a hard time letting go of tight control when the situation shifts to one of the other systems.
Photo by Issy Bailey on Unsplash

Disordered Systems

  • A system is Disordered when it’s not yet clear which of the four Systems is actually present, or when the problem has been put into the wrong category.
  • When leaders are first exploring Complexity Theory, this isn’t a bad thing. Developmentally it’s a very good sign when a leader stops to ask, “What conditions are currently present, and therefore what kind of sense-making is needed?”

The Situation: Most Leadership Challenges are Complex

  • Most of the gnarly challenges today’s leaders face are in the Complex realm, not the Complicated one. Anything involving managing people, for example. Building engagement. Coaching. Diversity and inclusion. Creating high performing teams. Empowerment.
  • But think of the trainings people generally attend. Five steps to a difficult conversation. Four steps for effective coaching. Eight steps to build a high performing team. The problem is that the same steps applied five time to the same individual or group of individuals will likely yield five different results. These trainings are popular because they appeal to the minds of leaders who are used to the Complicated domain and feel comfortable there. But it’s so important to understand the difference, and to have trainings for Complex topics take an appropriate sense-making approach.
  • Misplacing a challenge wastes a huge amount of time. A leadership team can have a full-day meeting to plan the building of a new bridge, and that time may be well spent. But taking the same amount of time to figure out how to raise engagement scores is probably a waste of time and energy because of the differences between the two problem sets.
  • Leaders therefore need to understand Complexity and acquire new skills for leading more effectively within it. Change management, creation of high-performance teams and organizations, diversity issues, “safe workplace” and employee engagement initiatives all fall in the Complex area. There are not simple rules to follow. The same actions do not always lead to the same results. Leaders need to learn how to navigate differently.
  • Unlike Complicated Systems, which lend themselves to linear approaches, Complex Systems are non-linear. But leaders primarily promoted for their technical competence tend to be much better at linear approaches.
  • While Complicated Systems can be figured out and have predictable outcomes, in Complex Systems the solutions are emergent because they become clearer over time, especially with frequent learning cycles.
  • For this reason, Complex systems do not lend themselves to hierarchical, top-down, command-and-control solutions.
  • However, most leaders, were promoted by gaining mastery in Complicated systems, and those systems are more conducive to top-down hierarchical leadership. To the detriment of the organization and its employees, these leaders often continue to apply that hierarchical and linear style of leadership to issues in the Complex domain.

With Complex problems, how do you move forward, in an agile, nimble and effective way?

  • Please see our article on Leadership Capacity. We identified most Conventional leaders as Heroic Leaders who believe they should have the answers, have difficulty with asking for help or saying they don’t have all the answers, being vulnerable, etc. These leaders are unlikely to do well in the Complex domain. Leaders functioning at Catalyst+ (please see the article for more details) are much more likely to create contexts deeply infused with safety and trust, in which all members feel comfortable contributing their best ideas, and these perspectives are then coordinated to determine a reasonable next step. Leaders wanting to lead more effective in Complex realms would do well to study this article.
  • In a Complex System you can begin with a reasonably well-thought-out idea, using whatever skills and knowledge are at your disposal, and then see how the system responds and then use that data to determine next steps. If it works, then do more of it. If not, then shift. This is the realm of Dynamic Steering, with rapid cycles of goal, plan, action, feedback and reflection.
  • It’s a waste of time to sit around and try to figure out the “best” or “ideal” approach because it doesn’t exist. Remember, any approach, applied 10 times, may yield 10 different results. We instead encourage teams to work until they have a safe-fail way to move forward, a workable next step, an approach that’s good-enough-for-now, and if it doesn’t work, at worst it’s unfortunate rather than catastrophic. It’s an approach where it’s worthwhile to try it and see what happens. When you reach this point, after you’ve agreed on timelines, roles and responsibilities and steering points (see below), end the meeting and try it. Most leaders and teams reach this point in 30 minutes and then spend the next couple of hours trying to perfect it,, because they’re still thinking as if it’s a Complicated problem.
  • Building in steering points is crucial. What kind of data is needed to allow the team to quickly steer, pivot, advance, retreat, adjust, etc. depending on what they learn. Data for steering points are often different from data to measure the success of the endeavor, and need to be gathered much more frequently. We have often joked that when organizations conduct engagement surveys every two years, and then come up with top-down strategies to address whatever issues emerge, it’s like being in a car, opening your eyes and studying where you are, and then closing them for two years while you drive based on what you thought you saw.
  • Engagement of multiple stakeholders is crucial. Many processes with names like Agile and Design Thinking involve getting ongoing feedback , particularly from end-users, using iterative processes where solutions are prototyped, tested out, and adapted. This involves both perspective-taking (putting oneself “in the shoes of” others who will be involved in the process), and perspective-seeking (spending times with end-users, for example, asking about what matters to them, their reaction to current and potential steps, etc.)

There are some other guidelines for dealing well with Complex situations.

  • It’s important to be able to step back and see overall patterns, rather than get lost in the details.
  • You expect the path of progress to non-linear. You hopefully keep moving toward the goal, gathering data, and steering to adapt to changing conditions.
  • A Complicated problem can be “solved.” We wanted to figure out why the streetlight wasn’t working, and found a loose wire. Now it’s “fixed.” But Complex problems like homelessness, poverty, and gender inequality; and organizational problems like engagement and retention; cannot be “solved” or “fixed” where we can now go on to other problems. Complex problems need to be managed ongoingly.
  • In our trainings we say this a lot: In the Complicated domain one can clearly make a mistake. If we build a bridge and it falls apart when the first car crosses, then someone definitely did something wrong. But in the Complex domain, if we applied a safe-fail experiment and it didn’t go optimally, we didn’t make a mistake. We didn’t fail. We just learned something to help guide the next action.

“Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler” — Albert Einstein

Recognizing Different Conditions

As an exercise, we ask our clients to identify parts of their work that are Simple, Complicated, and Complex. There will not be regular parts that are Chaotic, although that can always arise. Let’s use the example of building a bridge.

  • Prior to construction, experts need to apply their craft and come up with a plan for moving forward. This part of the work is a Complicated System. There will be elaborate charts and timelines that predict financial, materials, road closures, traffic diversions, and other issues well ahead of time.
  • Once the work commences, some of it is in the realm of a Simple System. It’s known at what temperature certain paints will adhere, for example, and how to best fasten parts of the structure together. There are known and replicable processes to put into place.
  • For both the Simple and Complicated Systems there are rules to follow that work consistently, rationally, and linearly. Both are conducive to more hierarchical, top-down management.
  • However, maintaining a positive work environment, optimizing engagement and harmony, managing high performance, retaining top talent and dealing with citizen complaints is Complex. Though there are important models to consider and apply, it cannot all be figured out ahead of time. It requires a different mindset on the part of the leader and the steps are often emergent.

It is very important for leaders to understand what conditions they are facing, and which of the four mindsets or ways of sense-making are most effective given those conditions. Frequently a task will have at least three different conditions present in different aspects of the work.

Please reflect on:

1. Which aspects of your work are Simple, Complicated and Complex?

2. In what domain are you most comfortable? You’re likely to see problems as existing in this domain, even if they don’t.

3. Do you have examples where you took a Complicated approach to a Complex problem, and this led to difficulties?

4. How well do you navigate in the Complex domain? Generating safe-fail or workable experiments, identifying appropriate steering points, and moving forward with a Dynamic Steering mindset, pivoting as needed?

Clear Impact Consulting Group is Dr. Sandra L. Hill and Dr. Joel M. Rothaizer, MCC. Hopefully, this article has stimulated some new thinking. We open-source our curriculum. Please subscribe to our Medium articles. You can find them all at Clear Impact Consulting Group — Medium. We welcome hearing from you. Our website is www.clear-impact.com. You can email us at partners[at]clear-impact.com.



Clear Impact Consulting Group

Building individual and organizational capacity through executive coaching, organizational/team effectiveness consulting and leadership development.