A Thousand Little Things

Complex change is not about the one big decision or the one big project. Complex change in uncertainty is an outcome of a thousand little things. Launch lots of little experiments.

Researching for a workshop on Agile Change and Culture last week, I revisited the work of Heifetz, Linsky & others on Adaptive Leadership. I was reminded of the concept of the Decision Conundrum. Brought up with models of leadership based on power, we expect leaders to make one big decision to make everything right. However, complex and uncertain change in systems often requires us to make a series of small decisions to prod the system and so that we can learn. Experimentation is a great way to prod a system

Experiment to Learn the Real Adaptive Problem

One challenge we may face is to understand the real problem.  Lois Kelly described a great example of this in a recent blog post. When cultural issues or complex systems aren’t delivering the right outcome we can spend a lot of time on the wrong problems. Too often we try to fit one big, often popular, solution to the poor outcome rather than ensure that we properly understand the problem.

Here are two more examples where the obvious answer to a complex challenge led to counter-productive results:

  • An organisation decides that its poor performance is due to a lack of accountability and following management theory implements an exacting performance regime. In their complex system, creating single point accountability is challenging and becomes subjective and arbitrary. The risk-averse culture is worsened by the uncertainty of the new system and collaboration collapses as people seek to look after themselves. The focus on accountability leads to further performance declines as fear increases and morale collapses. (For an extended discussion of this dynamic, see Roger Martin’s The Responsibility Virus)
  • An organisation wants better employee engagement and implements an expensive new collaboration system to enable new social conversations. However, all the new system does is display the poor leadership skills & mindsets of senior leaders more clearly to everyone. Employee engagement collapses and the system is rarely used. Management then start looking for a better collaboration system.

Experiment to Learn the Way Forward

In complex and rapidly changing scenarios, the ‘simple obvious’ solutions are often incorrect, unhelpful or downright dangerous. Much of management theory was developed for a simpler more predictable world.  Even if you are sure that your one big fix is right, before you commit fully, try a test.

The more complex the scenario the more likely it is you have to learn through a rapid series of agile experiments. Heifetz and Linsky describe the approach as Observe>Interpret>Intervene.  The Cynefin framework talks about Probe>Sense>Respond. Col. John Boyd’s OODA loop is Observe>Orient>Decide>Act. All of these approaches to complex scenarios shift the focus from one big decision to learning from experience and constantly adapting action. We need to use experiments to help us understand how to fix situations requiring complex change.

Experiment to Engage the Whole System

Adaptive problems are rarely solved around a board table. We need to bring the insights of all the system participants to bear on the problem. We will likely need their contributions to a solution too.

Moving away from a big decision mindset helps enable a wider engagement. When leaders stop looking for one big fix to decide they have a better chance of pushing the work out to the participants in the system and letting their voice be heard. Working Out Loud on experiments to drive change is a great way to start a new conversation about the way things are and should be.

Experiments to Gain Momentum

Momentum is your friend in driving change. Humans still have a herd mentality. Big decisions usually require big waterfall projects that are slow, expensive and risky. A thousand little experiments can create a much greater engagement and much better sense of the priority and momentum of change.

The busy humans in your workplace have fractured attention and are pretty forgetful. They aren’t likely to attribute much weight to your ‘one big thing’ until it is done. However, lots of experiments creates a pattern that might be more effective in holding their attention.

2 thoughts on “A Thousand Little Things

  1. Simon, Thanks for an interesting, timely and relevant post. This reminded me of an interview with Philip Pullman in the Guardian the other day. He was talking about his new trilogy The Book of Dust. In this Pullman described the vision behind the series and his exploration of Dust

    “It’s an attack on the reductionism, the merciless reductionism, of doctrines with a single answer.”

    Contrasting his view to the William Blake like vision of a fiercely reductive way of seeing things: it’s right or wrong; it’s black or white.

    Pullman said that was far too limiting and “we should bring out truer human vision when we see things, surround them all with a sort of penumbra of imagination and memories and hopes and expectations and fears and all these things.”

    I love that and it is worth repeating – a sort of penumbra of imagination and memories and hopes and expectations and fears. If we bring all this and a sense of experimentation and inquisitiveness and wonder then it might just be possible to cope in this complex world.


    1. That’s a wonderful quote. There is humanity hidden in the complexity and a dull machine-like routine in expecting everything to be simple, rational and certain. Thanks for sharing, Peter.

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