Embrace the Mess?

The New York Times Sunday editorial [11.25.07] on what's wrong with the health care system in the U.S. and how to fix it was thought provoking. The system is a mess—a rather complex mess at that. Contrary to what we'd believe from the simple sound-bite solutions the politicians are offering us, it is a problem that has to be addressed at many different levels of a mind-boggling maze. There seems to be a real reluctance to acknowledge this complexity.

It made me think of how many of my clients want to attack their business problems as if they were playing checkers, when in reality, their business is more like a three-dimensional chess game. Every move at the executive level has implications throughout the organization and, eventually, the marketplace. The impact of these moves can be subtle and often take a significant period of time before they surface. By then, the cause and effect relationship is often not recognized.

Many of the executives I deal with are linear thinkers.

As I said, many of the executives I deal with are linear thinkers. They often look at an emerging issue as an engineering problem controlled by predictable laws of physics, rather than a messy puzzle ruled by random variables in the behavior of employees, board members, investors, competitors, and customers. They think, "If margins are poor, cut costs." Rarely are all the possible impacts on future revenue generation or current productivity considered.

I have come to the opinion that there are at least two forces leading them down the linear path. First, many of them have come up through the ranks of finance and love the predictable beauty of mathematics. Second, I think they are uncomfortable with ambiguity. The future can't be predicted in today's business climate with any degree of certainty. The ramifications of an executive's judgment call are significant. It is scary to get it wrong. The simple fact of the matter is that the solution often lies around a corner, not straight down a linear road.

Tom has been talking about, or, should I say, screaming about, living in a world of disruptions. A recent study by the Center for Creative Leadership found that 92% of senior executives surveyed believe that the challenges they face are far more complex than those they faced five years ago. Most believe that innovation will be the answer, although most also acknowledge their organizations are not very good at it.

So what has to happen? I have some ideas, but I want to hear yours. How do we encourage leadership to be more holistic and multi-dimensional in their thinking? How do we excel in a complex world?