Simple Habits for Complex Times: Powerful Practices for Leaders
by Jennifer Garvey Berger and Keith Johnston (Stanford, 2015)
What are the big take-aways?
Rooted in Robert Kegan’s theory of adult development, Berger and Johnston describe “habits of mind” that help leaders move forward in the midst of our global VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous) conditions. How do leaders not just survive but thrive in unknown and ever-changing territory? The authors advise leaders to “engage with complexity, but keep it simple” and “grow your people to be bigger than your problems” by supporting them in their own developmental journeys. The three primary habits of mind which the authors prescribe for increasing individual and organizational capacity for complexity are: (1) asking different questions, (2) taking multiple perspectives, and (3) seeing systems.
Why do I like it?
Simple Habits for Complex Times is full of relatable examples of how powerful and simple the three habits are, but how they are not always easy. For instance, in an introduction to the concept of “asking different questions” using a realistic hypothetical situation (involving a crisis facing the director of a statewide department of children and families) which the authors thread throughout the book, they explain (p. 17):
The questions you ask will tell a lot about the way you’re seeing the world at that moment in time. A mindset of abundance or a mindset of scarcity? A mindset of threat or a mindset of opportunity? A mindset of curiosity and openness or a mindset of judgment and action? A mindset about what is or a mindset about what could be? Notice that all these mindsets are the right ones to have in certain circumstances. They’re only problematic if you are the mindset rather than choosing it – in that case it would be most accurate to say that you don’t have the mindset – the mindset has you. Your mindset determines your behavior, determines what is or is not possible in a given situation, including what questions you think to ask.
As for the other two habits, an example of taking multiple perspectives might be asking yourself, when angry with or dismayed or offended by another person’s behavior, “What must the world look like from the point of view of someone who would do that?” An example of seeing systems might be to look beyond a particular event or set of circumstances – or beyond a particular team or department or company – and ask, “What patterns emerge when I look at what’s happening in the big picture?” (An astute client of mine asked herself the other day, in a leadership coaching conversation, “How does this initiative fit into the larger ecosystem here?” That was seeing systems.)
In what situations would this be useful?
Simple Habits for Complex Times would be especially useful for a leader and/or an organization that is keenly aware of the shifting sands within the industry and its larger context, and is deeply committed to adapting to unfolding realities by questioning old assumptions and learning new things. This book is for leaders who are psychologically ready to stretch themselves and devote time to practicing the simple habits, which include a willingness to: match mindsets to circumstances; go out of their way to seek others’ perspectives; go out of their way to understand systems inside and outside the organization; shape the parameters of an evolution rather than a predetermined outcome; create well-bounded “safe-to-fail” innovation experiments; tolerate discomfort; make changes as they become aware of emerging information; communicate strategies in a clear and emotionally-appealing way; and support the adult development (i.e. create conditions designed to grow the capacity for complexity) in every employee. The book describes, in understandable terms, how to do all of this.
I also can’t emphasize enough how valuable the authors’ advice is for leaders who are messaging change, and who need to set a course into uncharted waters by using language and processes that a wide range of people can get behind (p. 149):
The communication challenge in the face of complexity is to manage this paradox: how do we speak clearly to different groups, listen to them, and deliver messages they experience as consistent and aligned with their ways of making sense of the world – and all the while we are learning together, in the moment, about the nature of the situation and what might be helpful ways to make it better? The model we describe here for communicating in times of volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity enables leaders and their organization to thrive within this paradox.
I find myself constantly recommending this book to my nonprofit clients.
What other resources might “pair” well with it?
Comparing this book with another resource that offers some similar strategies which are also based on Kegan’s adult development theory, Anderson and Adams’ Mastering Leadership: An Integrated Framework for Breakthrough Performance and Extraordinary Results (previously reviewed here in the Leadership Library last February), Simple Habits for Complex Times is – in large part by using its comprehensive hypothetical about a statewide department of children and families – more attuned to the kinds of complexities found in government, public sector and nonprofit work.
Other great pairings include: Reinventing Organizations: A Guide to Creating Organizations Inspired by the Next Stage of Human Consciousness by Frederic Laloux (Nelson Parker, 2014); Changing on the Job: Developing Leaders for a Complex World by Jennifer Garvey Berger (Stanford University, 2012); and Immunity to Change: How to Overcome It and Unlock the Potential in Yourself and Your Organization by Robert Kegan and Lisa Laskow Lahey (Harvard Business Press, 2009).