Leading in a Complex World Requires Adaptive Problem-Solving Tools

Today's world is not just complicated; it's complex. Complication, while containing a lot of pieces, still has finite variables and calculable solutions - things like Swiss watches and Ferraris. Complexity, however, is an environment where some of the variables are not only unknown and rapidly changing, but also unknowable and antagonistic. 
Complexity, however, is an environment where some of the variables are not only unknown and rapidly changing, but also unknowable and antagonistic.  
Are today's leaders prepared to navigate this complexity? Do they have the tools to critically analyze and make decisions off partial (or conflicting!) data sets? Are our schools or training programs giving our leaders the mindset to adapt to the changing landscapes and unpredictable future? Have we adequately articulated what agility or flexibility look like in our team members or organizations?

I've devoted the last eight years of my career to developing a new crop of leaders - those who intentionally grow adaptive problem-solving skills. In an era of highly technical knowledge and skills, these "soft skills" are anything but soft. I argue these lessons and attitudes be at the forefront of human development, training, and education programs:

UNPREDICTABILITY. Adaptive leaders appreciate uncertainty. The future does not unfold like pre-printed pages in a novel. Rather, it grows like a weed - sprouting off new branches and leaves in an organic, unpredictable fashion. We call this a non-linear environment, where the present situation splits off into any number of possibilities, which then each can split off into any number or possibilities, and so forth. 

INFORMED AWARENESS. It's not good enough to just have situational awareness. We must have more. We need to learn the contextual significance of changes in our environment. And beyond that, we must move beyond passive reception of the stimulus; adaptive leaders are information hunters - who seek and probe for warning signs.

FORECASTING. Just because the future is uncertain doesn't mean that we do away with planning. Actually, just the opposite is true: adaptive leaders have to do more planning. The process requires getting out our crystal balls and time machines to develop models of our future - and contingency responses for each possible outcome.

TRIAGE. Multiple problems put stress on leaders. As such, we must learn how to prioritize the problems - based on urgency, importance, and probabilities. This three-dimensional risk management philosophy gives us a fuller image of the risk and opportunities to our situation.

SUPERVISION. Adaptive leaders need a full-spectrum supervision and management toolkit. At one end, the leader plays the part of a chess player - dictating and manipulating her team and resources. At the opposite end, the leader is a hands-off art teacher - inspiring his students to draw out their values and emotions. In the middle is the balance where a sports coach guides his team with a hybrid approach of the two polar opposites.

DECISIVENESS. Decisions are too often evaluated on their accuracy or correctness, too often ignoring another vital component: timeliness. The timeliness of a decision or action needs to match up with the urgency of the situation or effect of the change or stimulus. Adaptive leaders become masters at manipulating and exploiting time - to give themselves the best chance to make the best decision, in whatever time allows.

GENERALISM. Generalists fare better than specialists in the age of uncertainty. Specialization has to match up with the predictability of future problems and opportunities, or else the talent goes to waste. Generalist leaders are also masters at connecting-the-dots and collaboration. This theory applies not only for generalist people, but generalist equipment, teams, processes, systems, and solutions.

RESILIENCY. Lastly, adaptive leaders are learners. They fail. But they get back up, learn from their mistakes, and keep at it. Resilient people maintain a vision on the objective (The Why) and continually test fresh hypotheses and methods (The How). Adaptive leaders know the destination, and are willing to take many paths to get there. Resiliency is about growth and change.

I've boiled the many lessons learned down to these eight. These are the ones with the broadest application, hopefully to many of your teams and groups.

In nurturing and mentoring adaptive leadership skills in our people, our organizations will not only react to, but anticipate, predict and adjust for the uncertainty ahead. Talent is good, but we need vital problem-solving capabilities first. It starts with identifying the traits of adaptive leadership.


Lou Hayes, Jr. is a police training unit supervisor. He studies human performance, productivity, emotional intelligence, and adaptability. Follow Lou on Twitter at @LouHayesJr.


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