Best-in-class Strategies for Leaders to Handle Complexity & Build Resilience
Have you noticed that over time your business has become much more complicated? It may seem like every time you turn around — there are changes with regulations, business politics, business cycles, and technology investments, and more. Maybe you think you need to manage the growing complexity in your business, but you don’t know where to start. Here are best-in-class strategies for business leaders to handle complexity and build resilient in their organization.
Growth is a marker of a business’s success, as having growth is critical to its survival. But, with this growth — and all of the changes — comes complexity.
A core challenge of today’s and tomorrow’s companies, complexity cannot be made simple, and it is not going away in the near future. Managing complexity must therefore become a core competency of executives and leaders. Complex organizations are difficult to manage. It’s harder to predict what will happen, because complex systems interact in unexpected ways. It’s harder to make sense of things, because the degree of complexity often exceeds our cognitive limits. And it’s harder to place bets, since the past behavior of a complex system may not predict its future behavior.
We live in a world full of ambiguity and uncertainty. Has that not always been the case?
No: digital transformation is new and its disruptive powers are immense. This state of affairs has recently been called VUCA. The acronym VUCA for Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, Ambiguity was introduced by the US Army War College in the 1990s, to describe the world after the collapse of the USSR. A world that had become multilateral, more volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous.
Resilience, through this lens, is the ability of an organization to anticipate, respond to, and emerge from unforeseen challenges.
The reason resilience is so important is that someone needs to lead when others cannot. Someone needs to be the rock when others turn to sand under the pressures of work and life. If you are a resilient leader, you are able to become that solid foundation so that your your company don’t crumble under the unexpected pressure.
This article isn’t going to turn you into a resilient superhero overnight. I know it takes time to handle complexity and build resilience, but this list of seven strategies to becoming a resilient leader and handling complexity is a good way to get started.
Thus, business leaders must learn to handle the complexity of their organization better. Thankfully, the five strategies below keep it simple so you can implement them right away and that will help prepare your organization and build the strength and resilience necessary to successfully navigate challenges, abrupt shifts in direction and crises.
Strategy #1: Give More People More Power
The real key to performance is combining cooperation with autonomy. The problem with standard approaches to an increasingly complex business environment is that by creating new layers, processes, and systems to deal with these challenges, you also sacrifice people’s autonomy. That makes your organization less agile.
One of the effects of smart simplicity is to balance autonomy and cooperation.
It gives people enough power to take the risk of interpreting rules, using their judgment and intelligence. Suppose more employees have the authority to make decisions in your organization. In that case, that means they can solve problems on their own. Promote and practice collaboration between employees and allow them to have as much freedom over their jobs as possible. Simply letting them choose when they work and how the work gets done can make a huge difference in how much effort they put into their jobs.
Building positive relationships isn’t just about getting along with others in an organization.
Another important way that resilient leaders build positive relationships is they take the time to develop other leaders. The most resilient leaders are not only interested in their own growth but are also concerned with the development of others. Intrinsically resilient leaders know that when someone encounters a failure, that it is nothing more than feedback for moving forward. Resilient leaders are most successful when they develop other leaders with the same ability to bounce back in the face of adversity. By developing other leaders, resilient leaders are demonstrating how to be coachable, and that is the next key to becoming a resilient leader.
Today’s workers are increasingly tasked with more complex and abstract challenges, a shift from the pure production mindset of the past.
Inversely, automation threatens numerous jobs, while leaders face internal and societal pressures to not reduce workforces. These combined trends reinforce the need for an organization to invest in its workforce by creating opportunities for workers to develop new capabilities that meet both near-term and future needs. Amazon, for example, announced that it plans to spend $700 million to retrain its workforce to do more high-tech tasks, in an effort to mitigate the effects that advances in technology have on more manual roles.
In addition to building capabilities, organization’s can empower teams by allowing a degree of autonomy to make faster decisions in times of uncertainty and increased ambiguity.
An organization that requires all decisions to pass through multiple hierarchical levels will struggle to react quickly when it’s most needed. To eliminate these bottlenecks, organizations must assess where individuals and teams can be trusted to take decisive action to move things forward, in addition to ensuring they have the skillset to do so. Shifting from a hierarchical to a flat structure has been beneficial in many organizations. Zappos adopted holacracy back in 2014, for instance, and its team members decided to manage themselves as internal small businesses.
Strategy #2: Communicate Powerfully
How can a leader bring others along during times of turbulence? If they act individually and do not inform others about what they are trying to do, they are not going to be very effective. You cannot be a leader if you have no one to lead; therefore, in my experience in working with people, having a framework for effective communication to reference is useful, especially when trying to refine this skill.
In order for a leader to be resilient they need to remember that everything they say or do will communicate something to someone and they only have so much capacity to communicate.
Keeping these principles in mind when they are leading helps to ensure they always effectively communicate their intentions to their team so they can maintain the important relationships that will help them, and the team, succeed. Effective communication will ensure others understand the new strategy or direction they are being asked to take and that the leader maintains the trust required to effectively lead. Trust is maintained by setting one’s intention in public to help others understand the changes, expectations, and new guidance, advice, and direction required to move forward.
Resilient cultures understand that communication is a powerful tool to drive behavior in the organization and it creates open conversations around ethics and values.
Along with the leaders, any other stakeholders can take this approach and promote responsibility through open communication. Probably one of the most effective tools for transparent internal communication is the corporate intranet platform. It serves as a single point of truth, and all employees can rely and trust the information coming from it, especially during difficult and uncertain times. Be honest and don’t hide anything from your people. Communicate honestly on the measures you are taking as a leader, the impact of the crisis on the company’s results, the future perspectives, etc. Honest and open communication is essential to build trust and reduce uncertainty.
Sharing information often is key to helping employees build resilience.
In uncertain times, your team wants to know the facts and the reality of what is happening. Lack of information will have them creating their own stories and ideas of what the future looks like. Lack of transparent information will create distrust. As a leader, you need to communicate often with your team and across different platforms. It would be best if you were open and honest with them, sharing what you feel is going well, what you are worried about, and where you feel the company and team’s priorities are successful.
Candor comes easier to organizations that default to open and transparent communication across all levels as an essential part of their culture.
Ray Dalio, co-founder of Bridgewater Associates, famously promoted what he called radical transparency, which required that “people said what they believed and saw everything.” One way this was achieved was by recording every meeting and making them available to all employees. He argues that this allows for the proliferation of ideas and diversity of thinking that has spurred Bridgewater’s success. In short, open lines of communication allow for an easier flow of ideas, break down silos, and instill trust across an organization. Each is critical in times of crisis.
Strategy #3: Anchor to Purpose
When you’re leading in times of uncertainty, you don’t have a playbook to guide you, and you are called to make quick decisions that impact others. Moreover, you navigate an environment and context that shifts day after day, asking for a flexible approach. How to navigate with consistency in such environments while keeping your options open so you can quickly adapt in the face of changing circumstances?
Committing to core values and principles will act as a North Star to guide fast and challenging decision making despite uncertainty.
Leading with values and principles will enable a leader to act with courage and clear intent, authentically. What an organization produces and how it makes money are subject to change based on a myriad of factors, including consumer preference and the economic environment. However, the why behind the business ought to prove sturdier and less circumstantial.
The underlying purpose of an organization, and the ability of its leaders to articulate and connect their people to it, is foundational to its success.
Defining and refining purpose is not a one-and-done activity and has to be more than fluffy platitudes on a company’s home page. It’s a collaborative and iterative process that requires introspection across the organization to answer why do we exist? and who do we want to be? The answers to these meaty questions should inform what success looks like, both in the near term and long term. Executives leaders must be tasked with living out the organization’s purpose by letting the why inform the what, whether by a market expansion, vertical integration, modernizing employee programs, or other strategic decisions.
The purpose, our reason for being in this business, provides a “guiding star” on the horizon, a framework for prioritizing goals.
Every business book talks about the importance of purpose and values, so perhaps this is nothing new. However, in simple and stable environments, even if the vision is a wishy-washy vague statement, it can provide enough guidance for people to manage well. But, in a complex environment, the guidance provided by a focused, even “discriminating” statement of purpose and values — what NOT to do — is absolutely critical. Every manager in the company should understand clearly and deeply what really drives the business, the fundamentals of the business’s profitability, and why the company is in business.
People work better when they understand — and have to live with — the consequences of their actions.
Too many times, people have no idea how the work they do fits into the bigger picture. People focus on performing the duties they’ve been tasked with, oblivious to how their work impacts the quality of the products or the people they work with. When you require employees to face the consequences of their actions, they begin to understand how their work fits into the entire process. They’ll make fewer careless mistakes and pay more attention to their work quality.
Strategy #4: Adapt & Innovate
Rational, linear cultures are deeply socialized in a tradition of understanding through analysis. We expect causality and seek a clear “why” answer to everything. And when we don’t find it, we tend to overdo analysis or simply freeze. But action can be a better way to understanding and find solutions than analysis. In complex or low experience situations, muddling through and trial and error often work better.
An organization that both formally and informally rewards innovation is exponentially more likely to successfully innovate.
Innovative cultures have been fostered in various ways such as Google’s mythologized 20% policy and Patagonia’s “let my people surf” ethos. Google’s policy encourages employees to pursue passion projects with 20% of their time, and Patagonia’s policy encourages employees to take advantage of the good surf, knowing that good ideas aren’t limited to time in the office. Both of which work toward the same goal of creating space for employees to think outside of their job descriptions and to foster ideas and pursue passion projects. Of course, simply creating space is not enough. Building structured processes for learning how to innovate will provide the most value to an organization by creating a path from ideation to execution.
Autonomy for teams working on the ground enables them to adapt their work to the constantly changing environment in which they find themselves.
This adaptation is guided and governed as a constant learning process — in which each encounter and action is a learning opportunity. Adaptation is more than being responsive to changing contexts but an intentional approach to test, learn and adapt to this learning. This requires a rigorous process of continual action research. It is this process of continual action research which provides the material for learning together. There is extensive use of methods which enabled actors in a system to see and understand it as a system — exploring systems from the perspective of both actors and factors.
Innovative approaches to empowering employee creativity during the pandemic came in handy for many healthcare systems.
Engage front-line employees in process improvement, workflow redesign and the development of solutions. Make it safe for employees to solve problems (and sometimes fail) as they come up. You will need all levels of the organization responding in a crisis with empowerment, know-how and creativity. Find a way to empower employees and inspire them to improve working conditions and product or service quality. The more empowered they are, the more they’ll influence your company and culture positively. Reinforce their actions by publicly recognizing the good things they’re doing for the company as a whole. Make sure you’re specific and detailed with your praise so co-workers can model that same behavior.
Last two years have seen some income streams slow to a trickle and others come to an abrupt halt.
The most resilient leaders have looked to innovation to enable their organizations to evolve in order to survive. Key to this is looking for ways that revenue and productivity can be maintained even when structures are changing. What changes could be made within the business to help ensure sustainability and relevance no matter what happens to the economy? This may involve taking new perspectives on what the business can produce or integrating technology to change the way that this is done.
Strategy #5: Rinse & Repeat
Resilient leaders adapt well to change and keep going in the face of adversity. They have a growth mindset and are continuously learning. That approach works well when the world is rapidly changing and is sometimes the difference between an organization staying afloat or folding. Resilient leaders are not afraid to take risks and make bold changes. This ability to make bold changes often is related to their ability to adapt to and champion change, it just so happens that is the next key to becoming a resilient leader.
Change is difficult. It takes courage and requires a vision about where an organization is headed.
Resilient leaders embrace change and also take others with them as they move forward through change. Not only do they lead through the change, but often they are the ones that are championing the change within their area of authority in the organization. Having a resilient leader with a vision inspires action. A powerful vision can pull together ideas, people and other resources even when it feels like everything is uncertain. Resilient leaders can provide the proverbial lighthouse when things are uncertain that helps to create the energy it takes to make change happen. Resilient leaders with a vision inspire individuals no matter what is going on around them.
Leaders may be surprised by the specifics of altered circumstances, but a resilient leader is not surprised when confronted by the notion of an unforeseen challenge.
The truth is we have just come through one of the most challenging years of our lives, and there are probably even more challenges that we must face in 2022. But you have only to look down through history to see that out of uncertainty comes some of our greatest success stories. Your role as a leader is critical right now. Step to the plate, help your team build the skills they need, and you will see all of this uncertainty become your strategic advantage.
In times of uncertainty and complexity, leaders will benefit from growing their adaptive leadership skills.
Leaders are encouraged to step away (zoom out) from the challenge ahead to take a broader perspective on the situation, to then plunge back into action. Effective leaders can find the right balance between action and reflection, which I like to refer to as zooming in / zooming out. Looking at the problem from the balcony allows leaders to gain a clearer view of the bigger picture and reality ahead to then define the best solution forward.
There is no playbook to manage such situations, so be prepared to take important decisions on your feet and focus on values and principles to guide your actions.
Trust and empower your people and foster a holding environment in which people feel comfortable taking initiatives and generate creative solutions to support the companies’ results. Leaders who increase trust at all levels and lead with empathy, honesty and humility will be better prepared in face of future challenges. Resilience is an essential element of the human quality known as grit. Gritty individuals work hard and persevere to achieve their goals. They are unyielding in the face of hardship. They are also extremely focused and loyal in their passions. They commit to their area of interest for the long term–they are marathoners as opposed to sprinters.
What precedes suggests that organizations that have already initiated their inner revolution, in the service of their development, can be confident and determined to succeed. For in this VUCA world, certainly nothing can be predicted, but everything can become an opportunity.
Resilience is the human capacity to meet adversity, setbacks and trauma, and then recover from them in order to live life fully.
Resilient leaders have the ability to sustain their energy level under pressure, to cope with disruptive changes and adapt. They bounce back from setbacks. They also overcome major difficulties without engaging in dysfunctional behavior or harming others. Resilience is a crucial characteristic of high-performing leaders. Leaders must cultivate it in themselves in order to advance and thrive.
As leaders, that is your job right now.
To dig deep, show up, and help your team develop the skills and strategies they need to care for themselves, handle complexity and build resilience across the organization. It’s your duty to create a sense of calm for your team, and more importantly, helping them find the path forward, cope with the stress they are feeling, and build the inner strength they need to bounce back and push through the challenges.
Building a successful company involves more than business-oriented resilience.
It also involves organizational resilience: the strength of your people and how they’ll manage and lead moving forward. Covid-19 reinvigorated the need for both business and organizational resilience. Those at the helm of a business need to not only find ways to lead through uncertainty and anticipate change, but also foster companywide resilience. Invest in the right tools, provide the necessary support, and make talent development a priority. Your operations are only as resilient as your leadership.
Resilient leadership is essential in troubled times and can be the key to surviving upheaval and uncertainty.
The way organizations lead and manage in times of uncertainty is critical to business performance and their ability to remain competitive and relevant. Know that you have the skills you need to increase your resilience, and if you need support, I’m here to help.
Digital Dandy. Hacker From Heart. Workaholic. Coding Artist. Self-made.