The gift of not-knowing: Six questions for leading in complexity

By Katy Mamen

The simple truth is that the world we live in today is bewilderingly complex. The growing wealth gap, the tenuous future of our democracy, and the trajectory of the global climate are just a few of the trends whose uncertainty can trigger deep angst.

We see signs of complexity within our daily work lives too. We might find that the program we worked so hard to implement isn’t having the desired impact, that we don’t understand the power dynamics playing out in our organization, or that the context in which we’re operating is changing faster than our strategic plans are able to keep up with.

Complex systems have lots of moving parts with many interconnections. They are dynamic, adaptive, and inherently unpredictable. Yet, as leaders, our training typically sets us up to think, act, and lead from a linear, control mindset. We’re told if we just work harder to achieve our goals—create more detailed plans, provide further directions, push harder—we’ll make progress. We’re frustrated when these efforts fail or lead to unforeseen outcomes.

One of the most powerful gifts of complexity thinking is understanding that being effective doesn’t come from working harder to advance our own interest, but instead cultivating the capacity to work with uncertainty in a different way. Complex systems lack clear, linear, “cause and effect” relationships and their behavior can’t be predicted. It can come as an incredible relief to realize that, not only do you not have to have all the answers, but that you can’t in fact “know the answer.” This realization is the real gateway to becoming a true systems leader, one that leads to a more powerful mindset for working with complexity.

Re-orienting to complexity is an ongoing practice, particularly in a dominant culture so governed by linearity. Working with the following lines of inquiry can serve as a framework to help us navigate.

Six questions for leading in complexity

1. How might I cultivate a learning mindset?
The human brain is wired toward linear cause and effect, yet complex systems have multiple, interacting dynamics that produce nonlinear behavior. No one individual can ever see the whole system from their particular vantage point – our knowledge is always partial and subjective, filtered through our own experiences and lenses. Being an effective leader in complex systems means cultivating a beginner’s mind, bringing curiosity and humility to our efforts to understand the context in which we’re operating and intervening. This principle applies to organizations as well as individual leaders: learning organizations—ones that constantly sense the system, learn, and adapt—tend to be more effective and minimize the unintended consequences of their decisions and actions. Develop your ability to ask good questions. An older but wonderful and unfailingly relevant resource is The Art of Powerful Questions: Catalyzing Insight, Innovation, and Action.

2. How can I get comfortable with not knowing?
This “beginner’s mind” stance is contrary to so much of what those of us raised in a Western academic setting are taught. It can be uncomfortable and even threatening, particularly if our identity is strongly wrapped up with being a content expert. This shift in mindset takes time, and building our tolerance to be comfortable with uncertainty and ambiguity is an ongoing practice. In moments where you might be feeling distress or discomfort as a result of not knowing the answer or the ‘right’ path forward, a good first step is to remind yourself that you can’t know, and to hold self-compassion. Bring your attention to the sensations in your physical body and soften where you may be holding tension. It may also help to start a conversation with your team with the goal of supporting each other in spotting and navigating complexity in your work. You could share and discuss this blog post or ask colleagues where they see places your strategy may be taking an expert stance where in fact there may be no clear answers.

3. How might I seek and integrate multiple perspectives and ways of knowing?
Bringing this curious and open “student” mind will help you build a wider lens on the field. Stretch outside of your comfort zone to hear how things look from ‘over there.’ Take a learning journey, carry out stakeholder interviews, engage in a facilitated dialogue with people connected to the issues you care about but who hold very different viewpoints, or just sit and listen deeply to knowledge holders. Understanding the lived experiences and perspectives of people with different locations, or vantage points, in the system, is essential to finding powerful and durable leverage points for change—those places where small actions can lead to outsize impacts and, importantly, avoiding harmful unintended consequences of your actions. Importantly, when we are struggling to hold a lot of information and perspectives in our limited minds, don’t discount your intuition as a way of cutting through to what matters.

4. In what ways am I a part of what’s happening in this system?
The systems we influence are not just happening “out there.” We are inextricably part of them. One of the most powerful shifts with a move to systems thinking is coming to understand our own complicity in maintaining a system’s behavior. Often, there are ways that change efforts inadvertently reinforce the problems they aim to solve. For example, housing agencies that provide temporary shelter for the chronically unhoused as a solution to homelessness may actually be diverting resources and attention away from efforts to provide permanent housing, thereby undermining the intended outcome. On another level, building self-awareness around how we show up in these systems can have a really meaningful influence on the systems we engage in as well. How might your attitude, beliefs, and behaviors be influencing your team, organization, community? Theory U, a strategic change framework, offers some helpful guidance for developing an open mind (curiosity), open heart (compassion) and open will (courage) toward being in service to positive change in complex systems.

5. Where might more and better relationships be needed?
Organizational and systems change expert, Meg Wheatley, observed that one of the most powerful ways to create better health in systems is to connect it to more of itself. In social systems, building stronger relationships and communications pathways are straightforward ways of achieving this. The heart of Ag Innovations’ approach is bringing people together across difference; the power and magic of what emerges when individuals who have vastly different perspectives come together to learn from and with each other never ceases to amaze us. By building a shared narrative of what’s happening in the system, we come to understand the dynamics that are most powerful in shaping systems as well as the most strategic actions for lasting change. This principle applies within organizations as well. Where might better relationships and new communication pathways support information getting where it needs to go?

6. How can I build in more and better feedback?
Expect the unexpected – especially in complex systems. The fact that we’re operating amid so much uncertainty doesn’t mean we shouldn’t act, just that we need to learn and adapt as we go. Find ways to build in lots of opportunities to learn what the effects of our actions might be, and adjust course to minimize unintended impacts and amplify the outcomes you want. Developmental evaluation is a learning and evaluation framework, rooted in complexity science, that offers some good tools, particularly if innovation is important to your organization or project.

Over time, deepening our practices, culture, and systems to align with a complexity mindset is incredibly empowering, nourishing, and rewarding. How have you engaged complexity and uncertainty in your own journey to build a just, equitable, and thriving California? Share your stories and insights with us on LinkedIn!