Advancing transformational change. Facilitating new solutions.

The New Possibilities Imperative

For every complex problem there is always an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong.H. L. Mencken

We live in a new world.

These are unprecedented times. It has simply never been this way before.

Our world had never been more interconnected and interdependent.

In order to understand and function successfully, we need to deal with high levels of complexity, and situations loaded with abstraction, diversity, ambiguity and paradox. Our familiar mental models do not equip us for this.

It is hard to see beyond the horizons of the short time spans with which we usually work. Next month, next quarter are less important than next year, next generation.

We are operating in environments high in complexity.

Few people are trained to recognize and work in high levels of complexity. Our mental models are based on short-term, straight-line ideas of cause and effect. Before we can recognize high levels of complexity, we have understand what it is. We can’t see it until we believe in it.

Types of Complexity

When the levels of complexity in the issues we are working with are high, it becomes critical for us to be able to use models that offer new possibilities to:

  • succeed in new contexts,

  • make learning an integral activity, and

  • ultimately to achieve new results.

The high levels of complexity we are encountering shows themselves in three forms, each with its own challenges.

Type Of Complexity




Focus on various parts or the whole system?

Cause and effect are close together in space and time.

Solutions can be found by testing and fixing one part at a time.

Cause and effect are far apart in space and time.

Solution can be found only when the situation is understood systemically, taking account of the interrelationships among the parts and the functioning of the system as whole.


Solutions are planned or emergent?

Future is familiar and predictable.

Solutions from the past or other places can be repeated or replicated.

Future is unfamiliar and unpredictable.

Solutions cannot be calculated in advance based on what has worked in the past. Emergent solutions have to worked out as situations unfold.


Solutions come from leaders or from participants?

People involved have common assumptions, values, rationales and objectives.

A leader or expert can propose a solution with which everyone agrees.

People involved look at things very differently.

Solutions cannot be given by authorities; the people involved must participate in creating and implementing solutions.

High complexity demands new ways of solving problems.

When there are low levels of complexity, simple, straight-line solutions often will be enough to stay on track. Simple problems can be solved using processes that are familiar:

  • focus on the parts of a problem in isolation,

  • rely heavily on what has worked in the past or elsewhere (“best practices”), and

  • participants are open to solutions proposed by leaders or experts.

As we focus on lasting change in groups, organizations and the community, we are dealing with increasingly high levels of the three types of complexity where success only comes through using processes that:

  • focus on working with all the parts as a single system,

  • accept that solutions emerge as situations unfold, and

  • involve the people concerned in developing the solutions.

We are challenged by higher levels of uncertainty and disagreement.

Certainty is much more available in situations where the results of actions happen soon and are easy to see, the future will be like the past, everyone is pretty similar, and trust is high. There are many day-to-day, decisions in organizations where these low complexity conditions allow decision to be made successfully by working with individual parts of a situation, using practice that have worked before..

There are, however, more and more situations in which decisions need to be made on understanding whole systems, incomplete understandings of future conditions based on too little or uncertain information, and high degrees of diversity and distrust. Depending on the number of stakeholders involved, the time frame, the unknown or uncontrollable factors, projects might become very complex and it becomes impossible to realistically predict outcomes.

Groups, organizations and communities increasingly self-organize on the basis of relationships. The degree of agreement among the people directly involved on vision, strategy or what should be done to the implement a project is an important factor determining success. In low complexity situations, leaders or experts may be able to propose a solution that is readily accepted and acted upon. Where complexity is high, diversity and distrust must be addressed by bringing the stakeholders together in an environment where a mutually acceptable solutions can be co-created.

Dealing with the variables of agreement and certainty

(Adapted from Ralph Stacey et al)Uncertainty/Disagreement Materix

1. For many low-complexity issues or problems, it is clear what needs to be done and people involved agree on that. In this case, conventional approaches, such as management by objectives, apply and work well. However, leaders should always question themselves, “How do we know that we know?”, “Have we assessed all the critical variables?” and, “What have we done to assure that people in our organization and other stakeholders share a common perperspective?” In this environment, imposing a solution, rational decision making, project management and organizational development may be effective.

2. Sometimes, it is clear that a particular strategy is most likely to lead to a better result. What has to be done, and what will be the outcome, is apparent to the leaders. However, members of the organization might not agree or may show resistance to the planned changes. Take, for example, the implementation of company-wide software platforms that facilitates management of business processes. There are hundred of examples where such projects have faced severe problems during the implementation phase.

In this case of certainty but with disagreement and resistance, the project must be “sold” to get “buy-in.” This takes time and resources but may save time and money in the end. Leaders should not mistake buy-in for ownership. People who buy into a project or solution are likely to abandon the solution if it does not go well. They are like customers who have had a bad experience—they will leave quickly and come back very slowly.

3. The opposite extreme in which leaders find themselves and their organizations is characterized by a high agreement of stakeholders--shared vision--but a high degree of uncertainty. “How will our business sector evolve?”, “What new innovations will be available tomorrow?”, “Which political or economic conditions will influence our future?”, etc. are just some key questions that apply. This is the area of scenario design. Also participatory approaches for defining strategies work very well in such situations.

The real challenge here is to understand when the future will not be the same as the past. In environments of rapid change, using what has worked previously is not a guarantee of success under new conditions. There are more and more situations where not only is the solution unknown, the problem itself is unclear as the conditions that lead to the problem are still developing.

The course for leaders here is to not build future solutions on data collected under past conditions. Instead, work to understand the systems within which the organization lives. Use multiple scenarios--stories about the future based on identifying the major uncertainties--to begin to understand the different ways the future may unfold. Identify strategies that would be useful in more than one scenario and develop an early warning system to recognize when one particular scenario is arriving.

4. It is difficult to be the leader who faces a situation in which the future is highly uncertain and the stakeholders are far beyond agreement. However, many community and political leaders are operating in exactly such an environment. It is what has been called “The Edge of Chaos”.

South Africa in the years after the release of Nelson Mandela in 1990, but before the first inclusive elections four years later was in this state. To avoid the widely anticipated bloodbath, the country had to find a common vision that was inclusive of many factions and a path that would lead to success. The scenario planning process held at Mount Fleur contributed to a national dialogue that selected one of the scenarios--called Flight of the Flamingos because flamingos take off and fly together--as the possibility that bound the nation as it launched its new future.

5. Most of the problems and issues that leaders are dealing with today lie between the extremes discussed above. These situations are characterized by a medium to high level of uncertainty and by stakeholders with highly diverse perspectives on what should be done. In such environments, the main task of leaders is to facilitate the co-creation of the organization’s future, to provide room for self-organization and to let people decide themselves about their own and their organization’s issues. Leaders need to use the tools for co-creation, such as Open Space Technology, Appreciative Inquiry, World Café, and others.

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