You may have sensed that the challenges of sustainability are complex. Take biodiversity loss as an example. This problem has so many multi-level causes that we are often unsure where to even start. A good place to start is to gather a variety of stakeholders in order to combine our expertise and make better decisions. Yet, these collaborations in turn create whole new systems of complexity. No wonder we get confused. Complexity, however, is the future normality so we might as well learn to enjoy it, rather than struggle in order to reduce it. Just as maintaining the complexity of biodiversity could create a earth future filled with abundance, wonder and resilient ecosystems, finding innovative and diverse ways of addressing complex collaboration priorities could lead to more robust, systematic and vibrant global partnerships. So how do we step into our future with a sense of adventure rather than fear?
A good place to start could be a better understanding of complexity. Becoming aware of complexity, and how it impacts us, is a prerequisite for us learning to better co-create – as awareness precedes insights and insights precede action. The four types of complexity outlined below was inspired by Otto Scharmer and his Theory U:
- Dynamic complexity: In this scenario, we can no longer trace, or plan around, cause and effect relationships in a linear fashion. An action in one part of the world may create unexpected havoc in another part. As a result, dynamic complexity invites us to complement our linear planning with systemic approaches and collective iterative learning mechanisms.
- Generative complexity: This complexity encourages us to let go of past behavioural habits, calcified mind-sets, and systemic structures in order to reach towards the radical innovation and collective intelligence needed to shift human behaviour and thinking towards a new pattern of engagement. Solutions that worked in the past and habitual patterns of action are not only unable to create future solutions, they also have the ability to pull us into a downward spiral. For example, our global financial system, in addition to the sole focus on the way we calculate GDPs, is preventing us from developing an economy that supports human evolution and equality.
- Social and institutional complexity: In our modern world we experience the presence of our diverse differences on a daily basis. The complexity of global institutions extends their different cultures, interests, and territorial boundaries across our world. This institutional complexity, however, also offers an opportunity to create exciting new opportunities through multi-stakeholder collaborations. As most of our sustainable development challenges – ranging from climate change to food and water security – require aligned action, multi-stakeholder collaboration offers us an opportunity to harvest the knowledge and expertise, needed for both global and local solutions, from many different cultures and interests and across old physical and mental boundaries.
- Value complexity: For many people in the world their personal values, institutional values and societal values are misaligned and as a result they often felt obliged to enter into trade offs. For example, many employees in multinational companies feel that they need to leave their personal values at the doorstep in order to operate according to their company’s performance demands. This type of complexity invites us to recognize the opportunity sustainability offers as a global project with the potential to realign our deepest human values with our behaviour across all aspects of our development.
For all four types of complexity, collaboration is the only way to turn challenges into opportunities. Where complexity is high, the capacity to adapt, to evolve, to coordinate, to innovate, and to change is equally high. This is one of the greatest learnings from biological systems and biodiversity.
What can you learn from complexity today?
- Where are you judging your growth as a linear process rather than respecting your iterative learning journey?
- Where are you using past solutions and how is it preventing you from a future possibility that you have recently become aware of?
- How is social and institutional complexity such as financial structures or environmental policies influencing a your personal experience today?
- Where are your personal values clashing with institutional values? What small acts can you take which aligns your values with your work place today and allows for greater co-creation?
This blog post looks at both the dimension of COLLECTIVE INTELLIGENCE -zooming into DIVERSITY – and the dimension of WHOLENESS – zooming into CONTEXTUALITY and VITALITY – in the Collective Leadership Compass. For more information on the Art of Leading Collectively, checkout the inside the book and reviews on amazon.com, or get inspired by an onsite course that takes the compass into the daily challenges of navigating complex change.
For more insights on leading collectively with the Compass, subscribe to my blog or read more in my book: Mind and Heart, Mapping Your Personal Journey towards Leadership for Sustainability, 2008
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More on navigating transformative change with the Collective Leadership Compass: my new book “The Art of Leading Collectively (Chelsea Green, US) will be released in February 2016. You can preorder from amazon.