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Navigating the unknown: How to balance long-term goals and daily disruption

Navigating the unknown: How to balance long-term goals and daily disruption

Mieke Jacobs and Paul Zonneveld, experts in systemic intelligence, set out their roadmap to navigate through the never-ending complexity and daily change in these unpredictable times

We live in complex times. Most of our leadership challenges don’t have simple solutions. As David Snowden states in his Cynefin model – where he describes the typical dynamics and corresponding approaches in light of predictability and unpredictability – complexity can be defined by the characteristics below:

▪ causes and effects seem to be unclear
▪ the organisation is not responding as predicted
▪ thoroughly analysed solutions and implementation plans are not leading to the desired outcome, they might even lead to a repetitive problem or make it worse
▪ we do not fully understand the dynamics and interconnections
▪ we often only do in hindsight
▪ solutions for problem A are not applicable for a seemingly similar problem B

Organisations are complex living systems. Nothing works in isolation: all elements in an organisation are visibly and invisibly connected to each other. If we want to understand what is disrupting our organisational processes and performance, we need to explore the entire system and the underlying dynamics, not just fix the symptoms. We need different instruments and different qualities to navigate in a complex environment. That is where systemic intelligence is indispensable.

We tend to make detailed strategic plans, set long-term targets, and define tactical execution plans, for years to come. Yet, it is a dynamic world: the optimal solution will often be outdated before we have even implemented it. We often see plans for a two-year improvement journey, for a detailed integration implementation roadmap with monthly milestones. But the organisational system and the value chain might react to your first moves in a totally different way than you expected.

As a result, the second step you had planned might not be the right one anymore. You might have a detailed plan in mind, but it is more important to take the first step and experience how the organisation responds to it, process the impact, understand what to conclude from it about your initial assumptions and the interconnections, and adjust your next move accordingly.

It is not easy to step out of the cycle of analysing, predicting, planning, launching, implementing and executing. Many companies operate in high-risk or regulated industries where risk management, scenario planning and control of critical processes are vital for their license to operate. We are not suggesting you let go of that, but be willing to let go of your inner protocol, of how things are supposed to go. The strategy that worked to fight the same battle last time will not necessarily work now. It is still important to set a clear direction, draft a plan and define the operating boundaries. Just realise that the road might not look exactly like the one you’ve mapped out.

Many leaders get distracted from their long-term vision – their North Star – because they are firefighting on a daily business. The daily disruption that is coming from broken processes, unexpected events, unhappy customers, people issues, performance problems and more is keeping them busy. As it is unclear what is really going on, they are fixing symptoms, not resolving the real issues and in some cases making it worse.

What if we would look at all sources of daily disruption as symptoms of something we don’t see yet? If we want to answer the question: ‘What on earth is really going on here?’, it requires a different lens. We need to start seeing the system at work and understand the principles it responds to. Not respecting these principles creates entanglements or constrictions which lead to unhealthy dynamics and unintended consequences, often reflected in disappointing results, loss of market share, a demotivated workforce and talent depletion. Understanding and respecting these principles leads to flow, and the ultimate goal is to use them at all times to navigate in a dynamic, complex environment.

Below are some systemic questions you can ask yourself, in order to get out of the daily firefighting cycle and find a better balance between the short-term performance focus and the longer-term direction setting.

Purpose:
▪ Reconnect to the roots: what were our founding principles? How are they still valid today?
▪ What were the critical milestones during our existence that have shaped our identity?
▪ Which dimensions, characteristics, qualities or strengths do we lack or have we lost?
▪ What is our true purpose today?

Connection and inclusion:
▪ What determines the boundaries of our organisational system?
▪ Who and what belongs? Who and what doesn’t belong any longer?
▪ What is being excluded?
▪ What is not supposed to be mentioned anymore?
▪ Are there secrets or traumatic events in the history of our company?
▪ Who has been left unnoticed? Who still has an impact, even though they officially don’t belong to the system any longer?
▪ If you reflect on some of the crisis situations, what are they actually masking?

Order and occupying one’s place:
▪ What is the order of things here? What is the pecking order?
▪ What is our model for decision making? Is it transparent? Does it serve our purpose?
▪ Who owns this issue (could be a trailing performance parameter, a key challenge that keeps the team awake at night, a recurring problem)?
▪ In which way is this issue serving the system? Is there loyalty to something else?

Exchange:
▪ What is our company narrative? What is in it for all stakeholders?
▪ What behaviour is rewarded here? What do you need to do to belong?
▪ Who or what does it serve when this issue does not get resolved?
▪ What is the price of change in this company? Who is paying it?
▪ What is the longer-term equilibrium between giving and taking?
▪ What is the vitality in the organisation?

These systemic principles support us to identify and understand the symptoms in our organisations, leading us to the real underlying dynamics. As such, they can be used as the compass to navigate through the never-ending complexity and daily change in unpredictable times.

ABOUT THE AUTHORS

Mieke Jacobs and Paul Zonneveld are transformational facilitators, experts in systemic intelligence, and co-authors of the new book EMERGENT

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