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How Leaders Make Sense From Disorder

May 18, 2020

How Leaders Make Sense From Disorder

This pandemic delivers change, confusion, fear, and terrible devastation to so many. But for the most part, we have met it with solidarity, love, sacrifice, and strength. No matter how it seems in the darkest moments, each day presents a new hope, new challenges, and new opportunities. 

These opportunities are specific to each person and company. But many of us now have a pivotal opportunity to rise to the occasion as leaders.

Opportunities of many different kinds are always present for leaders who can face their fears and anxieties, acknowledge and adjust to the fog of uncertainty, and adapt their leadership to new or unknown rules. To that end, I want to share a tool for gaining perspective and making decisions as a leader in times like this: The Cynefin Framework. It's all about how to act in one situation versus another and why. 

History: The Simple Domain

When things are Simple (or Obvious), the situation is known and understood. Rules and procedures exist. Decisions are easy: "Let's just act how we know we ought to because we already know what works." Cause and effect is clearly understood. We know exactly why the things we see have happened and how to get to the results we want from here. Sounds pleasant!

Unprecedented 

But the one word we hear most relative to this pandemic is "unprecedented." How do we make decisions in an unprecedented time? 

In the language of the Cynefin Framework, the pandemic has created decision-making scenarios that are not Simple (or Obvious), they are Complicated or Complex. Some of us may even have had moments of Chaos. The clarity that comes from explaining these non-Simple decision-making situations is a large part of my sharing this model with you. 

The Complicated Domain

When a situation is Complicated, the good news is, you know what you don't know. Cause and effect are unclear on the surface, but you can still gather information about what's happening, and you can understand cause and effect after sober analysis. You can get to answers, but superficial observations won't yield useful information about why you're seeing what you're seeing. Your senses aren't as valuable as the ability of experts to interpret the information you have. 

The Complex Domain

A situation is Complex when the unknowns are unknown. You can only understand cause and effect in retrospect—at the time the decision needs deciding, there is no proven-right answer. These situations require analyzing what we know, getting a sense of what we don't know, and experimenting as safely as possible to gather more information and get into the realm of the merely complicated again. You're running "experiments" as described here when you pilot a strategy or policy on a small scale or for a limited time to learn from the results. 

The Chaotic Domain

There is some hope when we look at the realm of the Chaotic. Chaos is when cause and effect are unclear, and action is the only way to respond. Act in a small way, see what happens, act a little more, see what happens, and repeat point-to-point until you finally can sense enough of a pattern that you're back in the Complex domain where you can experiment safely and safely methodically. This is like one of my favorite sayings: Go as far as you can go; when you get there, you'll be able to see a little farther. 

The Hope in Chaos

Where is the hope? The hope is that even Chaos can be managed rationally and brought back under control through disciplined, rational responses. The greatest lesson from the Cynefin Framework is that once we know we're not in a Simple situation, we can use these labels to act accordingly and be on our way to leading through it. There is also clarity and understanding for these times, if not hope, in how the framework discusses Disorder. 

Some Clarity, Thanks to "Disorder" 

Like so much language, "disorder" is often used as an emotional placeholder. It might even look like a synonym for “chaos." But here Disorder is when we can't agree which domain we're in. Some people think it's still Simple and the old rules will work; some people think it's Chaos and immediate action is more important than knowing; some people think it's Complicated and the experts can understand what the data mean. Sound familiar? The differences in opinions we hear about how to proceed in this pandemic feel different and more relatable when you think about them through the lens of decision making. 

Leaders Wanted

People look to leaders in times like these. Your value as a leader has never been higher. Your people and your businesses need you more than ever. Why? Because leaders make sense from Disorder.  

Your people and your businesses need your honesty, confidence, judgment, discernment, clarity and vision, track record, support, communication, understanding, and concrete timelines, plans, and structure. Without these, this will create Disorder, the breeding grounds for mistrust, negative attitudes, and disfunction. 

Opportunities are available to leaders who work to acknowledge fear and Disorder, and wrangle it back into Chaos, Complexity, and Complication. What opportunities will you find?

Conclusion

For me, as an entrepreneur, I have the view if I can create more jobs, I will. If I can make investments in our communities, I will. If I can buy goods and services, I will. I will spend and invest money in helping our economy start to work again. And of course, I will continue to support my community of entrepreneurs and risk-takers who have the courage to work on themselves and the empathy and compassion to put others first. I'm here if you need me. 

It's a demanding challenge to navigate through these uncharted waters. But fear not. Have faith. Understand and recommit to your highest values. Find and hold on to your courage to lead. Ask great questions, reach out to and hang out with great people (however you can!). Trust yourself. We can make it through this stronger and better. Let's help each other do just that. 

Dave