Meta-Tools for Leading through Complexity

By Marc Smith-Sacks

Many of the executive leaders that I coach lead teams and departments in highly volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous (VUCA) Arden Executive Coaching | Meta-Tools for Leading through Complexityenvironments. They face problems that do not have clear-cut, logical solutions, that even the experts fail to discern and solve reliably.

Some of my clients lament that the practices they learned in their MBA training (analyzing, categorizing, and solving with pre-baked best practice solutions) failed to prepare them for the environments they now lead in.  The rude awakening leaders quickly have is that business rarely ever occurs in such controlled or simplistic environments where prediction and control methods work. As we understand the complexity of our world, we learn that cause and effect relationships are seldom predictable or even perceptible until hindsight, if ever.

Factors bombarding our day to day business decisions include emergent and ever-changing phenomena such as economic shifts, technology disruptions, data security breaches, and changing weather patterns to name a few.  As I write this blog tonight, and I reflect on four current events impacting me and people I care about: catastrophic blizzards hitting Eastern US, a mini-terror network that cropped up in my home town of San Bernardino, escalating tensions between the EU and Russia, unprecedented refugee crisis from Syria and other war-torn countries.  How can we presume to lead (that is, declare a future that others follow), when predictable success remains not only illusive, but highly contingent on factors outside our control?

While I can’t offer you a silver-bullet to securing success, I can offer you insights about how you can show up as a leader in a way that will greatly increase your likelihood of success. Thanks to breakthrough ideas from three amazing thought leaders, we will explore three meta-tools that you can immediately apply to increase your chances of winning in your business, regardless of complexity.

I call these “meta-tools,” because they actually focus our attention on the tool user, not just the tools. These meta-tools have not only been proven effective countless contemporary business applications, but they are immediately actionable so that almost any manager can apply them today.

The first meta-tool I want to share with you is the practice of starting your creative engines. Serial innovation expert, Tom Chi presented a TEDxSemesteratSea a thirteen min talk called ‘Knowing is the Enemy of Learning’. At about 5:30 min into Tom’s presentation, he provides an exercise for starting your creative engines, which I will share here:

1. Pick a stubborn challenge from your life

2. Jot down a few things you know for sure about the situation

3. Pick any of those things you know, and force yourself (for 1 min) to consider what else might be learned about it.

I encourage you to stop reading this blog post and do this exercise now. This blog post will be here when you return…

Welcome back. How did it go for you?

I have begun incorporating this exercise in the innovation sections of my leadership trainings as well as in sessions with some of the executives I coach. What we are finding is that previously impossible situations start to shift, obstacles loosen, and where knowing previously kept leaders stuck, learning unlocks new possibilities for action. The second meta-tool I want to share with you is David Snowden’s Cynefin Framework. In his eight minute presentation David walks us through a way of sense making that takes us out of prediction and control mindset and provokes in us a way of relating with our circumstances that is dynamic and learning-oriented. David’s framework can be applied to any problem and is insightful with our most intractable, stubborn, and illusive problems. The process I recommend is as follows:

1. Take any sticky problem you are facing

2. Watch David’s presentation, and apply his framework as a guide for making sense of your problem

3. Use the framework to identify the level of complexity of the problem

4. Brainstorm three possible approaches for relating with your problem in a more dynamic and learning-oriented way.


Again, I am going to ask you to pause reading this blog post while you do this exercise. I will be here when you return…

Welcome back. How did you do? How might you shift the way you are relating to your problem in a way that could produce more learning and expand your possibilities for success? The third and final meta-tool I want you to know about is a 2.5 page white paper written by my colleague and fellow Ontological Coach, Charles Feltman, called Leadership and the Enemies of Learning .  In addition to ‘Knowing as an Enemy of Learning,’ Charles lists seven other enemies of learning. Briefly tour these seven other enemies, and see if there are any that are preventing you or your team from inventing and innovation in your business. Identifying these enemies for yourself and your team can sometimes be tricky. If you get stuck, find a trusted colleague or coach to work with you to illuminate your enemies of learning and ignite your true learning and VUCA leadership potential! I have shared with you three meta-tools for improving your leadership in VUCA environments. If you applied all three of these tools in earnest, you likely experienced one or more catalytic shifts that will expand your learning and leadership capabilities. The question is not whether you, as a leader, will encounter VUCA problems, but rather, what kind of a leader will you be when you do. View some other thoughts on leading during uncertainty here.

To help you find your own way through volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous times, consult with Marc on how we might assist your company.