4 ways for managing complexity in increasingly uncertain times

managing complexity

Even before the covid pandemic, the pace and scale of the change taking place all around us was increasingly disruptive for economies, businesses, leaders and individuals alike.

We can now add socially divisive policy, war and increased political and economic uncertainty to the familiar litany of 21st century challenges for organisations: technological advancements, demographic change, unprecedented speed of transactions, hybrid working, virtual teams and so on.

If we lived in a world of volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity (“VUCA”) previously, surely what we are now confronting must be VUCA 2.0 or perhaps, even, VUCA squared (VUCA2).

So how do organisations and their leaders cope?

Here are some ideas.

1. Take a systems view

No organisation, department, team or individual operates in isolation. There is always a wider context in which we are located.

One way of conceptualising this in the workplace is to view organisations as complex adaptive systems.

A complex adaptive system is one that consists of networks of connected and unconnected individual agents. As a result of the actions of these agents, which are not always predictable, the context in which the other agents in the system are operating is constantly changing.

Complex adaptive systems are dynamic. Outcomes emerge, often unpredictably, from the responsive interactions of those within the system and from their interactions with those outside the system.

Leaders who can take a systems view of their organisation and its context:

  • are better prepared for the unpredictable,
  • can be more agile in their responses to the unexpected, and
  • are better able to notice recurring patterns of interactions, harnessing those that are productive and changing those that aren’t.

A systems view also has the capacity to promote a true no-blame culture, by acknowledging the multiplicity of influences that bear on any given outcome.

2. See the complexity

Professor David Snowden and Mary Boone’s classic HBR article provides us with an incredibly useful way to makes sense of the VUCA2 world.

Their Cynefin (pronounced ku-nev-in) framework recognises the shifting and evolving circumstances in which we operate and proposes that our environment can between characterised in one of four ways – simple, complicated, complex and chaotic. Each context presents a different challenge and requires a difference response.

A simple environment is one of repeating patterns or events where facts are clear and cause and effect is self-evident. This is the context of best practice, where effective processes and clear communications are required.

The complicated environment is one where cause and effect is not readily apparent but where patterns of causation can be determined with expert intervention. More than one reasonable solution to a complicated problem may be available. Judgement is required.

Complex environments are unpredictable. No obvious solutions exist to complex problems and cause and effect can only be discerned in hindsight. Complexity requires creative responses. Diversity of thinking, increased levels of interaction and safe to fail experiments that generate learning and new ideas are required.

Chaotic environments are highly volatile, full of unknowables. Multiple decisions are required at any one time and no cause and effect relationships can be detected. In this context, immediate command and control action is warranted until the chaotic can be shifted into the complex space.

In the VUCA2 world, we increasingly find ourselves operating in the complex space.

Things can start to go wrong when we apply solutions that are appropriate for complicated problems to circumstances that are truly complex.

Signs that this might be happening include projects stalling, interpersonal relationships breaking down and communications drying up.

3. Manage the Anxiety

Volatility, uncertainty, complexity, ambiguity – the very words drip with anxiety, and anxiety can often be a huge derailer of progress in the complex world.

It is therefore the leader’s job to try to keep this anxiety in check.

This requires the leader to behave in more mindful ways and to develop increased perspective taking capacity.

It also can also be accomplished through the explicit recognition and acknowledgement of the complex environment and the creation of the conditions within which progress within complexity can be made.

This involves promoting positivity and a sense of purpose, harnessing diversity and creativity and promoting more interactions between team members and between teams.

4. Allow leadership to emerge

Old ways of directive leadership cannot be effective in complex environments.

Leading in complexity cannot even be confined to those holding leadership roles in the organisational hierarchy. Since complexity is unpredictable, leaders cannot foresee outcomes.

Therefore the leader’s role is to facilitate the processes of productive interaction from which change, meaning and knowledge can emerge.

Leadership itself emerges in those who are freed up to contribute most effectively to the quality of the organisational conversation, whatever their assigned place on the org chart.


In many ways, the most important part of all of this is the recognition that the VUCA2 times within which we are operating create unprecedented levels of challenge and change.

With that recognition must come a move to new ways of working that are fit for the purpose of meeting the increasing demands being placed upon us.


Berger, J. G., & Johnston, K. (2015). Simple habits for complex times. Leader to Leader, 2015(78), 25-30.

Cavanagh, M. (2013). The Coaching Engagement in the 21st Century: New paradigms for complex times. In D. Clutterbuck D., Megginson and S. David, (eds) Beyond Goals: Effective strategies for coaching and mentoring, London: Gower Publishing.

Plsek, P.E., & Greenhalgh, T., (2001) Complexity science: The challenge of complexity in health care. British Medical Journal 323; 625-628.

Snowden, D.J., & Boone, M.E. (2007) A leader’s framework for decision making. Harvard Business Review November 2007, pp.69-76

Stacey, R. D. (2001). Complex responsive processes in organizations: Learning and knowledge creation. London: Routledge.

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