"Why manage complexity?"
Why not? (Or is your question: how?) These aren't easy questions to answer. Yet, as a leader and "people manager", managing complexity is critical to get the best out of your team or organisation.
I am sure you have struggled to level up your leadership game at some point. Not for the lack of willingness, but rather circumstances are not allowing you to do so. You need to understand that, in most cases, the environment you're in is holding you back. That’s a good news: it's not you.
What is this "environment" I am talking about? One that is in super hyperdrive mode, trying to achieve growth at every opportunity. One that is increasingly digital and distributed, especially in the light of COVID-19. You are working harder than before, but yet you feel as though you're running on the spot and going nowhere. You're a little depressed, admit it.
And then, as resistance to your ideas increases, it slowly dawns on you: "Wow, people ARE complex." It's not just office politics. People are more opinionated, more passionate, more willing to work for a purpose rather than pay cheque. People don't want to do as they are told any more.
You also noticed that many are much smarter and brainier than you. Then one day, your boss came back from a Business Agility conference where he fell deeply in love with Agile. He wants you to "self-organise your teams and be autonomous like Spotify”. What?!?
Now, you feel threatened. Your “power” is being taken away. Lately, you feel like you're not pulling your weight as much, not contributing meaningfully as you should and all you do is fight fire after fire after fire. You get dejected, demoralised and begin to guard your turf, becoming a little meaner than usual (which is not really who you are.)
Stop. Don't go down that route. There's a way out.
It's called: Embrace the Complexity. Don't fight it, be ready to manage it.
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But first, to be effective managers in this manic world, you need to consider this: "Be the change you wish to see in the world." (A fake Gandhi quote, but a great one nonetheless.)
Remember when you said "people are complex"? They are also very difficult. That little boy who didn't want to eat his veggies is the same guy that's hunched over his workspace. They are equally very difficult to change.
So, we need to change ourselves first before we can change others. Remember that lone guy dancing with abandon at an outdoor concert? He's a real leader. He's the visible change that got people moving in unison. That sparked a movement. You have to be THAT guy. "And the rest will follow..."
So back to embracing complexity. Let's look at a couple of principles from Management 3.0 and see how you can get going.
Let's begin with 'Managing the system, not the people'.
What does it mean to you and your role as a manager? It means you leave your people alone (for the most part and in a good way).
Yes, you heard me right. Let them do great things that they are very much capable of and you hired them for.
"But how? Someone must make sure work gets done and performance is maintained and constantly improved!"
Let's face it. In reality, your people are already (I’m optimistic) given great workplace support, nice offices, access to unlimited information and knowledge (including the internet), in all likelihood specialist education to do their jobs well and even plenty of defining life experiences. In these circumstances, I'm very sure they can do the job and do it well.
"But they seem a little disengaged at work and need constant motivation. I need to monitor their performance!"
My advice, then, look at yourself and ask: “What have I done, as a manager, to create a motivating and purposeful workplace? Or have I always been too focused on results and my own work?” That occasional team meal, fun bowling event or pub sessions is a temporary fleeting experience.
While management should obsess over getting work done effectively and efficiently, leadership needs constant work on the people, not the work itself. What people need is steady support in terms of leaders who create a safe environment of experimentation (safe-to-fail for learning), empathy (to build better relationships with each other) and trust (free exchange of information and data, no hoarding). And the people need to know they are responsible in building this environment too.
In my last salary-paying job, I had unlimited holidays. Yes, one of those fancy perks of American corporate-hippy culture. While I had a boatful of autonomy and expected to “self-organise” as a senior team member, I ended up very disengaged from work. My manager and I were simply not in a mutual symbiotic relationship. We didn’t create an environment where we both were invested in our professional outcomes. We drifted apart like two stricken ships in a stormy sea.
And that brought us to “Co-Creation”, another Management 3.0 complexity-management principle.
The world is increasingly too complex for any one person to be able to solve its problems single-handedly. The brain, despite its glorious capabilities, has a limit to knowledge storing and exposure to insightful experiences.
The key question here: are you always up awake at night worrying about how to solve that complex never-fixed problem at work? Having increased anxiety and panic attacks?
There’s a remedy to this and it’s in the form of collective brainpower. What we should be pondering on a nightly basis is how to design and facilitate working sessions that tap on the collective knowledge of the people in our teams. How do we give voices to everyone to bring on their expertise and experience to the collective problem solving process? How can we re-focus on the “team” in “teamwork? (instead of groups of individuals with disparate and distinct KPIs from each other.)
Also, wouldn’t that create a deeper commitment to execute ideas and ensure successful solutions?
If you need pointers, go read up on Design Thinking and Liberating Structures, two of many new ways of working that will help you address, embrace and manage complexity that leads to better outcomes and more effective solutions.
So, the next time you’re tempted to reach out to a management guru for a cookie-cutter “framework” or “strategy” to simplify the people leadership process or find guaranteed formulas to make people motivated and productive, just don’t.
And that repetitive “meeting-brainstorm-retreat-back-to-our-little-world-before-performance-appraisal” dance routine that we’ve been doing for years now hasn’t been truly working lately.
People are very complex, we deserve to be treated as such. So let’s find ways to do things differently.