How do we lead in a complex, unpredictable world? 

Guides Viewpoints

Doesn’t it feel like a never-ending conveyor belt of disruptions, what with the pandemic, war, cost of living crisis, Brexit, extreme weather events? As a company born in the first lockdown, we’ve been working with leaders in organisations to clarify what it takes to lead through this incredible complexity.  What’s becoming clear to us is that we must upgrade how we think about our organisations, how we lead through the problems, challenges and opportunities ahead, to respond to this volatile world in any sustainable way.  

Thinking differently  

Since the industrial revolution, the idea that organisations are like machines has been seeping and creeping into how we lead and approach problems, change and innovation.  This mindset is based on the assumption of a linear relationship between cause and effect – if there’s a problem, remove the faulty part of the machine, fix it and then put it back in.  This can work pretty well for certain types of problem – if you want to train your people in a new IT system this can work just fine.  But if you want your people to buy into the benefits of the system, to trust it and integrate its use into everyday habits– well that’s a totally different challenge that needs a totally different metaphor 

You see the problem here is we’re confusing the nature of the problem. we’re mistaking a complex problem (or challenge) for a complicated one. Ron Heifetz, Harvard authority on leadership, describes this as the most common mistake of leadership. As one of our clients said, ‘we need to be more mayonnaise’ – let me explain! 

Complicated (training people in your new IT system) is like a jumbo jet. It’s got lots of multiple moving parts and you can take them apart and put them back together again in the right order and you get the outcome you want – the jumbo flies and people learn how to use the IT system. There’s a clear link between cause and effect, which is great as when something goes wrong you can find the broken part and fix it. 

Unfortunately complex are not so straight-forward. They’re more like mayonnaise. When you mix oil with egg white; something completely new emerges – mayonnaise. Once you have mayonnaise, you can’t go back and identify the different ingredients, you can’t find the eggs or the oil. There is no traceable, simple path between cause and effect.  Similarly, when you want to lead change that requires a shift in people’s mindsets, beliefs, values and habits (ie to actually use and embrace a new IT system, or lead inclusively inclusion or work more collaboratively) it’s not possible to predict exactly what will work, there’s no 3 point plan because you’re looking at a complex challenge – it’s mayonnaise! 

What we’ve learnt about Mayonnaise 

At Fp we’ve drawn on our experience of working with organizations immersed in this complexity and organisational research into change in a complex environment to create some handy guidelines –an acronym for mayonnaise type situations that has nothing to do with mayonnaise – D.E.E.P.  


D is for Direction. Direction is working with people to identify the higher purpose and or deeper meaning for their work. In complex situations it’s more effective to name or describe a broad direction than to set out a detailed plan towards a specific goal. A direction can galvanise energy so that people are working with shared purpose, but the crucial difference compared to a goal is a direction allows space: space for diversity of action; diversity of ideas; diversity of perspectives; space for different possibilities to emerge rather than a prescriptive, pre-planned pathway for people to follow. 

In fact the direction doesn’t even need to be attainable. Its breadth and stretch becomes a generative image that allows people to imagine new possibilities, which is so vital when faced with relentless disruption. A great example of a generative image is the phrase ‘sustainable development’. It combines two ends of a polarity, sustainability for the natural environment with growth. By combining apparent opposites together this term has generated new possibilities for growth within planetary boundaries. The key to unlocking the power of direction is to hold this long term focus in mind whilst working on the micro challenges of today. 


E is for Experimentation. Leading in complexity means you can’t do lots of analysis to work out the right solution and then implement that solution. It’s not possible to predict the relationship between something happening and the outcome. The way to generate change in complexity is by nudging the system or probing the edges of the issue to gather data on what works and what doesn’t. 

This is a test and learn mindset using small, safe to fail experiments. Our clients find this experimental mindset creates a completely different feel to their work: as in any scientific experiment mistakes and failure are actually expected (Tomas Edison and his team conducted about 10,000 experiments before they created the light bulb). When did you last work in a team where mistakes and failure were expected?! 

Safe to fail experiments might sound straightforward but this mindset can go against our habitual ways of thinking about leadership.  We all share a cognitive bias towards being right – whilst an experimentation mindset means you need to expect to be wrong; we all also share the need to feel a sense of control – when a truly experimental mindset means accepting the unpredictability of complex problems.  Fortunately, from our experience, when there’s high trust, teams find an experimental approach exciting, refreshing, and a fun way of working: trusting relationships are vital for experimentation. 


The second E is for Evolution. This is about learning at multiple levels. Learning as individuals, as teams, as an organisation: what’s working; what do we need more of; what do we need less of? It’s also about stepping back and taking a broader perspective on how we are learning.  

A few organizations are deliberately developmental, for example keeping logbooks of mistakes and what was learned in a format that’s visible to the whole organisation, so everyone can benefit from everyone’s learning. Practices like this can strengthen a culture of experimentation by normalising mistakes and making learning visible to encourage adaptation in the midst of a fast-changing world. 

Another ingredient for evolution is disruption.  Repetition and familiarity are appealing because they help us feel safe, however these conditions reinforce habitual patterns of thinking which stifles learning and adaptation.  Introducing a new perspective, a new experience, a new context can loosen our existing understanding of the world, throwing up in the air everything we know about an issue then allowing it to fall into new configurations, creating new connections. We often create disruptive experiences in our work with leaders, for example by exposing them to stories of people in a very different context, leading with very limited resources. This can help our clients to see themselves and their own organisation in a totally fresh way and to question the choices and options they have available to them.  


P is for Participation. We’ve known for decades that people own what they create, that diverse teams are more effective, so it’s not surprising that participation is vital for working with complex challenges. Participation is involving the people who do the work in the change. I think the reason we still see surprisingly little of this in many organisations is it goes against our legacy mindset of heroic leadership where the leader is right, in control and adopts a top down approach to leading change. Organisation research (Busche….) shows 75% of change efforts fail when they are led in this way.  It’s more effective to allow people the freedom to explore data and possibilities through conversation together: the leader holds the process whilst the people own the change.  

So when faced with a complex challenge we’re better off involving as many people as we can, creating dynamic, temporary teams, where decisions are made by those closest to the impact. 

Letting go and letting come… 

At its heart, leading through complexity requires us all to upgrade our understanding of what 21st Century leadership means. We must recognise and let go of the habits and tropes of leadership from an industrial-age era when we approached organisations as if they were machines. We can choose to embrace our ‘new normal’ with a new metaphor that recognises our organisations, teams and people are complex living systems. This mindset may even be vital if we’re to reinvent our organisations, institutions and mindsets to grow stronger in the face of increasing disruption, to create inclusive organisations that thrive in harmony with our natural world. 


Gervase Busche 


Myron’s Maxims