Leading In Complexity

Issue 96

Over the last few years, the pace of change and the speed at which we are working in organisations has increased dramatically, often along with the challenges and uncertainty we are facing.

Increasingly when I’m working with leaders I am met by people who are time poor, stressed out and working at breakneck speed. They are often verging on overwhelm, fighting fires as they happen, in complex situations and are struggling to work out why the planned, organized approach they have used so many times before isn’t working.

The term VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous) has rang true even more since the pandemic, fueled by a poor translation of existing working practices to a virtual or hybrid model. We’re trying to operate under a set of principles we learned long ago – which often don’t work anymore. In fact the average life span of knowledge in it’s finite sense is two years, which means if a new student is studying a four year degree course or apprenticeship, they’re knowledge is out of date by the time they have graduated. Scary!

This complex world however causes us humans immense challenges. Not only does it mean we need to be constant learners, trying to compete with a pace of change our brains can’t cope with, but we also are increasingly working in environments which are stressful for us due to the ambiguity and uncertainty. This in itself causes anxiety and means our limbic brains, the part that keeps us safe and is responsible for our fight, flight, freeze response, is in a constant state of alert.

The impact of this on our bodies and our nervous system, means we are not operating at our best. We’re making snap decisions based on emotion rather than logic and data, we’re reacting rather than responding to our colleagues, often not in a positive way, and ultimately we’re left emotionally drained.

Now the pace, complexity and uncertainty probably isn’t going to go away anytime soon. We can though choose to navigate it a different way, using the five steps below.

1. Stop: just pause and breathe. How are you responding? What are you noticing? What is the issue you are really trying to resolve? Remember – focus on the illness, not the symptoms. They are just noise.

2. Gain context: often we view everything through our own lens, and this isn’t helpful as it’s inherently biased. So look up, out and around you and gain some context and perspective for the environment in which you are currently operating. What factors are influencing your current situation both inside and outside the business?

3. Question your assumptions: what assumptions are you bringing to the situation? Are these fact or opinion? Would everyone have the same view or opinion as you?

4. Collaborate: no one person can fix this, and you don’t need to have all the answers, so reach out to colleagues, your team and seek input from those who may be closer to the issue than you are. Collective intelligence is always stronger and more impactful than one individual view, so park the “I know best” version of you and listen to some diverse inputs and seek to learn.

5. Control the controllables: once you have all this input and insight, divide everything you know into three segments:

a. those things within your control,

b. those things you can influence,

c. and those you can do nothing about.

Then focus on the first two. Create an action plan for what you can control, partner with others to influence what you can influence and try not to worry about the rest.

Remember, when you are working at pace, with factors that are changing daily or weekly, you can only make decisions with the information you have to hand now. If new information comes to light, then course correct – it’s ok to not know everything. You have a team of people around you wiling to help; all you have to do is ask.

If you feel coaching would benefit you or your team contact Annabel via LinkedIn,, or visit

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