Leaders need to see from multiple perspectives

 Complexity and Control

Jordan Greenhall recently used an interesting metaphor for why we have ended up with hierarchical organisations and leaders who operate from control-based structures in order to manage complexity.

 I’ll quote it in fully here because I doubt I could express it any better:

“Imagine a boat. We are going to row that boat, starting with but one paddle. If you’ve ever learned to canoe, you know that this isn’t simple. There is an art to it. You have to hold the paddle correctly, you have to learn how to put it into the water, how to stroke, how to return. The difference between doing it well and doing it poorly is significant. But, with a little practice, almost everyone can get at least reasonably capable of rowing their canoe.

This is a “management of complexity” problem. The relationship between oar, water, boat and person is complex. All of these systems are feeding back on each other in subtle and hard to predict ways. But the “control capacity” of a standard-issue human is up to the task. The human body, adapted to things like walking upright on two legs and throwing rocks has enough control capacity to manage this level of complexity.

Now add another oar. Generally, even someone experienced with a single paddle takes a little while to get it figured out. In particular, you have to learn how to simplify the problem by constraining some of the degrees of freedom of the paddles. Perhaps you fix the oars to the boat so that they can only traverse a single path. Certainly, you are going to have to make sure that you are paddling both oars in the same rhythm. By getting the oars into “coherence,” you can get the complexity of the problem inside your control capacity.

Coherence is one of the most important concepts in the management of complexity. When you take two systems (two paddles) and synchronize them, you radically simplify the complexity of the overall system. By getting two paddles into coherence, you are able to turn two paddles that you can’t manage into one big paddle that you can manage.

Now add another person to the mix. Side by side — each with one oar. This kicks the complexity up a lot. We are now dealing not only with two oars, we are dealing with two different control structures. And, of course, the only way to get things moving is for the control structures to get into coherence. Fortunately, humans are pretty good at this too. Like dancers or musicians playing together, we have a lot of bandwidth for small group synchrony. Getting into flow together takes some doing, but with a little practice we can manage this complexity.

Now add another ten people into the boat. This is a real problem. The complexity of this overall system exceeds the natural control capacity of “group flow”. Try as you might, it is darn near impossible for a group of twelve people to “self organize” into an effective rowing team.

Unless you put someone in charge.

Add someone to the front of the boat whose job is nothing but synchronizing the whole team (“stroke!”) and reduce everyone else’s job to responding to the signal coming from that leader (“stroke!”) and suddenly the system comes back into control. In effect, you’ve replaced thirteen individuals with one “group of people” and one “leader” in a control hierarchy. This is a radical simplification. As the Greeks and Romans of old discovered, it scales. As long as the people rowing the boat stay inside their box and focus only on doing their job, and as long as the coxswain says in a simple rhythm, you can stack dozens of rowers and get the job done.

Notice what happens here. In particular, notice what has to happen up and down the control hierarchy. The bandwidth (the amount of signal) going up and down the hierarchy has to be extremely simple. (“Stroke!”) Imagine if the rowers had to paddle and converse about where the boat should go. It couldn’t be done. Imagine if the coxswain had to try and control two boats simultaneously. Except in the very rare circumstance that the two boats could be consistently and precisely coherent, it couldn’t be done.”

What struck me immediately was that once there are multiple boats all trying to coordinate then the complexity increases and the various forms of control cease to be as effective. Any number of historic sea battles spring to mind.

Likewise the excellent recent movie Eye In the Sky starring Helen Mirren and the late Alan Rickman. It can be interpreted in terms of the tension between the technical, practical and moral dimensions and the dynamics of power and personality as the situation unfolds in complex and unpredictable ways.

Capacities for Leaders

What fascinates me at the moment is the question of what capacities leaders might need to “find their way about” in situations that are still “in motion” or where they face difficulties or disquiets that are of a more practical and moral nature. The kind of situations that can be contrasted with those simply arise from technical problems that can be solved with accurate problem definition, sufficient information and good decision-making.

What might be the characteristics of “culturally mature” leaders who are capable of operating in emerging, unfinished situations and circumstances in which no-one knows their way about?

An interesting starting point can be found in the work of Charles Johnston who has developed a Cultural Maturity Model. With some colleagues he has articulated some characteristics of culturally mature leadership. Over the next few weeks I’ll consider these suggestions and explore the connections to other stuff I’ve been reading and thinking about. I’ll start here:

“The ability to utilize multiple intelligences. If you wish to successfully address systemic questions, you must be able to access all of yourself as a system. You must draw on your whole self — your body, your imagination, your feelings, and your spirit, as well as your intellect — to effectively understand and effectively lead.”

Perhaps I would change this to refer to multiple “perspectives” or “orientations”. The significance of being able to “access all of yourself”, however, for our ongoing capacity to learn, not just “from” experience, but “within” experiences and situations cannot be underestimated.

In my view the ability to integrate of “1st person” awareness and inquiry with other more familiar forms, is one of the things that will set leaders of the future apart. This, along with the courage to be openly unknowing and vulnerable will be what will galvanise and inspire, especially when we do it intentionally and collectively. We must be able to increasingly draw on multiple perspectives to “read” situations. Perspectives that are familiar and ingrained along with those we are still discovering and learning our way into.

To bring “all of oursleves” to the table we must work on our skills and develop practices and heuristics for reading situations and circumstances in terms of:

Our bodily responses

Our relationships and power dynamics and how we express them in our shared language

Our learned capacities and capabilities

Our goals and purposes and the strategies we adopt to achieve them

Our willingness and capacity to doubt and re-define what we have previous taken for granted

Our capacity for personal, group, organisational/institutional and societal transformation

Our ongoing commitment and willingness to not take ourselves and/or the prevailing view too seriously and to actively seek further de-definition and transformation

In this we will be moving beyond binary “either/or” and complementary “both/and” thinking into something that is both “dialogic” and “polyphonic”.


In the next week or so perhaps you could try an exercise in intentionally applying some or all of these perspectives (particularly any you typically don’t adopt) to a situation you are in by asking some of these questions.

What physical sensation(s) do I experience when I’m in this situation? Where do I feel the situation in my body? What emotions does the situation arouse in me?

Who else is involved in the situation? Imagine the situation is in the centre of the room: What is everyone’s position and stance in relation to the situation? Who has power? What kind? How do they use that power?

What expertise and capacity do I/we have to deal with this situation? What might our expertise/knowledge gaps be? What capacities could/should we develop?

What is my/our sense of what this situation calling for? What does our current thinking suggest we should be trying to achieve here? What other possibilities are there?

After you have done this ask yourself:

What are my anticipations, feelings, intuitions and educated guesses about what will happen next in this situation?

Then as the situation plays out monitor your anticipations, noticing in particular when what happens isn’t quite in sync with what you anticipated.

What do you learn from this noticing?

Adaptive Action and Schroedinger’s Cat

Two articles particularly caught my eye this week. Both are well worth a read.

The first, by Lisa Gill, begins by quoting Margaret Wheatley who suggests that:

“I realised I had been living in a Schroedinger’s cat world in every organisation I had ever been in. Each of these organisations had myriad boxes, drawn in endess renderings of organisational charts. Within each of these boxes lay “a cat,” a human being, rich in potential, whose fate was determined, always and irrevocably, by the act of observation.” 

Schroedinger’s cat, of course, refers to the controversial thought experiement related to quantum physics, designed to debunk the idea that in some instances we don’t know the outcome in a situation where there are multiple possible outcomes until we “open the box” and take a look. The debate about this is continuing but the big question remains.

To what extent does our way of observing or measuring something determine what kind of result we will get? 

If you like the Big Bang Theory here’s an amusing take on Schroedinger’s Cat (you need to watch to the end).

When I read this I was reminded of a question I had been asked in a conversation the previous day, about why there is so much emphasis at the moment on 360 degree feedback, particularly in public sector organisations. Reading this quote and Lisa’s article led me to wonder about the impact of our “observing” in this particular way and raised a number of questions:

  • How is observing in this way constraining what we can think about people’s competence, or otherwise?
  • To what extent does the nature of our observing determine the kind of outcome we will get?
  • What are the constraints on our observing?
  • How are the outcomes to be understood in context?
  • What other observations could we make? How might they give us an alternative perspective?

The second article, by Dr. Mee-Yan Cheung-Judge, on OD Practitioners and Complex Change, describes a 5 day “laboratory” she and a colleague designed and ran in which they sought to help practitioners experience how to work in an “infinite game” situation.

The idea of an infinite game comes from a book by James Carse in which finite games, that are predictable with defined boundaries and agreed goals and rules about how to succeed, are contrasted with infinite games, with open systems, unpredictable boundaries and unclear or non-existent rules and ways of doing things.

Here’s how Mee-Yan describes what had happened by Day 2 of the laboratory – it’s worth quoting in full:

We saw, first hand, how the unpredictable and complex situation has managed to raise the level of anxiety in a short time, which in turn impacted upon group dynamics (competition, attitude towards authority, the balance between task and maintenance….etc) while the ability of the group to accomplish the task fell significantly. Most delegates felt a level of disorientation that rendered them a bit paralyzed. Instead of choosing to scale up their self-organising ability, they regressed to “please tell us more”, “please explain more”. What surprised the delegates themselves was that in the face of uncertainty, instead of deploying their energy in doing creative work to get themselves out of the sense of stuck-ness, they regressed back to the paradigm that “only if we know more, change could be managed, and we must try harder”. 

Following an extensive de-brief with participants and what sounds like a considerable amount of soul-searching he suggests that four questions are important:

  1. How do we teach complex change to clients? I’ve written about this previously.
  2. How do we help both OD practitioners and clients to trust the simple methodological implications from complex change enough to play with them? Jennifer Garvey-Berger and Keith Johnston’s book, Simple Habits for Complex Times is well worth a read on this.
  3. How do we make teaching complex change and working with complex change less challenging?
  4. How do we help all of us to accept that we (OD practitioners) can no longer ride on the identity of being an expert?

It is these last two questions that particularly interest me because they raise this issue of how we relate ourselves to a situation, not so much this time through out way of observing, but through the orientation or action logic we bring and what anticipations this generates.

If, for example, our “teaching” comes from an expert orientation or action-logic it will take a particular form. Likewise, if we orient ourselves to a complex “infinite game” situation from an expert or perhaps even an achievement perspective then the form of our response might be not unlike that of the participants in the laboratory, seeking to find our own form of “control” by developing more and better expertise or needing a greater level of “blueprint” or guidance about what needs to be achieved than is available.

If our orientation or action-logic is more in the realm of re-defining, however, it might be more likely to be characterised by a focus on collaboration, sharper awareness of context, a heightened sense of the contingency of particular actions and a greater awareness of owning a particular perspective while remaining open to it changing in the light of experience. We are also more likely not just to be tolerant of diversity but to engage with difference as a resource for understanding. If we adopt such an orientation and it guides our anticipations we are much more likely to notice and be open to the striking moments that can generate new possibilities. The downside to this is, of course, is that in doing any of it we will almost inevitably challenge group norms and can easily be disregarded or considered something of a maverick.

… those of us who have a need to know and are used to play[ing] a role in predicting what is going on for our organisations and clients will find ourselves paralyzed when we have neither the power of prediction nor the ability to hold onto certainty and be in the know. This impact can be disproportionally tough at the intrapersonal level as our professional identity as an expert and the relevance of our professional beings are being called into question. 

It seems to me that this represents a significant developmental question for most of us who seek to lead and support organisations as the challenges they face become increasingly complex. I doubt it will be a challenge that can be addressed within the confines of much of our existing thinking about leadership and organisational development.

In her article Lisa Gill proposes three things that might help an organisation avoid having a Schroedinger’s cat problem:

  • Using alternative tools to liberate people’s potential. Lisa suggests having a look at liberating structures. To explore this more deeply it’s worth exploring Bob Kegan and Lisa Lahey’s work on deliberately developmental organisations.
  • Creating a culture of psychological safety and learning. Lisa suggests reading Amy Edmondson’s book on Teaming. For a sneak peak see this video or a short HBR article on the three pillars of a teaming culture.
  • Presupposing that people are inherently motivated and want to improve. This, of course, is based on the well known idea of the pygmalion effect. For me it also raises the issue of how we orient ourselves to a situation and what action-guiding anticipations that orienting generates.

More later on other things that might also be useful ….

“Feelings of tendency”

This is taken from William James “Stream of Thought” chapter. In it he argues that we have often ignored the “transitive” parts of the the stream of our thing and placed undue emphasis on the “substantive” parts.

By doing so, he suggests, we have tended to confuse ” …the thoughts themselves … and the things of which they are aware.” In these circumstances he argues that

… ‘tendencies’ are not only descriptions from without, but they are among the objects of the stream, which is thus aware of them from within, and must be described as in very large measure constituted as feelings of tendency, often so vague that we are unable to name them at all.

Words in their speaking

We don’t just use words and language to name and describe things. More often than not our words are designed to do things: to direct; to evoke; to command; to unsettle and to pacify or calm – and much more!.

As obvious as this may seem, and as central as it is to how we go about our everyday business, we generally have very limited awareness of this aspect of our own involvement in the various circumstances that go to make up the multitude of intersecting worlds we inhabit.

Part of the reason for this low level of awareness is, I suspect, the likelihood that in order to participate in a particular world at all, to be intelligible and able to coordinate actions and activity with others, we must share a way of relating and a language for doing so that doesn’t require constant attention and which can be brought to bear effortlessly. That way we can focus on what we agree is important and we must, therefore, do in the circumstances.

Of great importance in our continuing ability to do this are our anticipations about what will happen next in any language-enabled interchange. When these are largely fulfilled we are able to move forward with ease and confidence and a certain resourcefulness that can often be mistaken for certainty. It’s when these anticipations aren’t fulfilled or perhaps come with subtle variations, that we can be roused out of our entrained ways of working and, as a consequence, see new possibilities.

We don’t however have lots of highly developed practices that keep us alert, ready to notice and respond to these disruptions or ‘striking’ moments. We therefore often go past them, put off for a moment but quickly regaining our composure and, to our disadvantage, plough on as if the mismatch between our anticipation and what actually occurred is some sort of aberration, rather than a clue or a glimpse into the unique nature of this event and these circumstances and the possibilities it holds.

Recommended – Humble Inquiry by Edgar Schein

Humble Inquiry: The Gentle Art of Asking Instead of Telling

“Questions are taken for granted rather than given a starring role in the human drama. Yet all my teaching and consulting experience has taught me that what builds a relationship, what solves problems, what moves things forward is asking the right questions.”

“What we choose to ask, when we ask, what our underlying attitude is as we ask—all are key to relationship building, to communication, and to task performance.”

Edgar Schein,

I will do a larger review early in the new year. These quotes are a taster!