Working Through Complex Challenges




Dr. Linda Ford brings 25 years of experience as a consultant and 15 years’ experience inside large organizations to help leaders meet complex challenges more effectively with less stress. She has worked with both nonprofit organizations and for profit corporations. Her work is also informed by her PhD in Human and Organizational Systems. 

Today’s environment presents leaders with increasing uncertainty, and what seems to be a never-ending need for change. Have you been trying to drive change in your organization, but becoming increasingly frustrated with your lack of progress?

Some of the challenges we face are more than just complicated problems. These challenges may:

  • Have so many moving parts that it’s hard to identify all of them
  • Be situated in a context that’s in flux
  • Have cause and effect relationships that are difficult (or impossible) to identify

If that describes your challenge, you’re probably facing a “complex”* challenge. This means you need to take a different approach.

*For more on complex vs. complicated, watch this 8-minute video from Dave Snowden (Click on “Learn More” under “Cynefin Framework”)

Solving Complex Challenges

Kelly (name changed) is the CEO of a social impact organization. She has been working on shifting the organization from yearly performance reviews focused on evaluation to a cadence of conversations about goals and directions. There are a couple of leaders who just don’t get it and have pushed back on the shift. Kelly notices her growing frustration with their cynicism more and more each day. “What will it take to get them on board?” she asks herself.

Three things helped Kelly move forward:

1. Looking at the situation from a different perspective. Kelly asked herself what this situation might look like to her future self. Her genuine curiosity and open mind allowed her to see new possibilities. She might also have considered the situation through someone else’s eyes or from a different place or point in time.

2. Pulling learning and experimentation to the foreground, even over “solving the problem.” Kelly looked for qualities or behaviors of which she wanted more or less. Then, she made a small nudge and observed the effect. This let her see what was malleable in the system and what was not. In a complex system, by definition, there are unknowns. When we try to “fix it”, the system usually pushes back – sometimes in ways we didn’t anticipate. When we act to learn, we become better at nudging the system. We work with the energy in the system, not against it.

3. Including herself in the problem. Initially, Kelly saw this problem as “out there.” Then she remembered that Bill Torbert says “you can’t be part of the solution if you’re not part of the problem.” That helped Kelly become curious about what she might change in her own relationship to the situation that can make a difference. This type of perspective shift empowers you to look at your own role in the system and discover the possibility of change there.

Making these three shifts didn’t magically resolve Kelly’s problem, but it did offer her new insight and possible next steps.

Moving Forward

Kelly continued to explore the complex aspects of the organizational change with her team in new ways. Within a few months, the new system had gained momentum and the change was taking hold. One of the “problem” leaders was now on board with the new system. He became a mentor for new leaders. The other individual decided that this organization was no longer a fit for him. He moved on to a new opportunity and Kelly filled his role with someone from inside the organization.

If you’re not making the kind of progress with your change that you’d like, explore it through the lens of complex systems. Try the three moves that helped Kelly move forward and join us for Mission Driven 2017 to hear directly from Dr. Ford and discover even more solutions for working through complex change. Space is limited- register today!

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