How do you manage complexity as a leader? Review of “The Lab”

A David Puls, becoming/change blog.

#LeadershipPartnersAustralia #leadership #complexity #ambiguity #enquiry #community

How do you manage complexity as a leader?

This was the question posed to us when I attended The Lab, a bi monthly community of inquiry facilitated by Leadership Partners Australia, headed by Tim LaPorte and Sandra Sieb.

It was an absolutely inspiring evening.

In this blog I want to talk about two things: the content and the process. Let me start with the process.


The participants came from a variety of sectors and organisation types, so brought different views to the table.  This was a genuine community of inquiry, owned as much by the participants as the facilitators.

Something magic can happen when a room full of curious leaders come together to discuss leadership practice, but it requires good facilitation to bring out the magic.

The facilitators (it was jointly facilitated by Sandra and Tim) very quickly built trust, set ground rules, and created an environment where participants felt safe to share.

The point at which I realised the evening might be more than initially expected was when we were challenged to bring our whole selves to the inquiry. “We don’t just want you to inquire with your intellect.  Bring the whole of you to the discussion.  Inquire from the heart as well as the head”.

And then they did what good facilitators do: they got out of the way.

The content

This wasn’t the first time that complexity has been discussed at The Lab.  We were quickly introduced to the Cynefin framework, which had been used previously and provided a base for discussion.

I’m not going to try and go into the framework in great detail as I won’t do it justice here, but if you want to understand it better then you can see Dave Snowden talking about the framework here:

The important take out is that the framework asks of you to look the data or information that presents in a particular circumstance and use the framework to assist in establishing ways you might act as a leader.  There are basically four classifications that require different types of approach: simple (when there’s a cause and effect that is always the same), complicated (where there’s a cause and effect that’s not immediately obvious but can be found with investigation), complex (where there is a network or system of cause and effect that is not linear or constant) and chaotic.

The question for the evening was about leadership within the complex arena.  The model suggests that a leader sense the patterns, try an experiment or intervention, grow what works, shut down what doesn’t.

And from there we jumped into inquiry.Leadership Lab pic

There were a number of questions posed by the participants and we self-selected into groups to follow the inquiry where we were most curious. (I understand that group work has never happened before. This was the choice of the participants).

I’m going to talk only about the specific topic of inquiry that I went with, and what that meant for my thinking.

We explored the role of vulnerability in leadership in complex situations.

When is a leader able to say “I don’t know. I don’t have an answer to this situation”.

In times of complexity people look toward a leader for a solution. The culture of an organisation is just one piece of the system that can have a huge impact on what happens next.  Does the culture accept ambiguity and vulnerability? Is failure encouraged as a method of learning?

When you’re being watched to provide a solution, it takes courage and vulnerability to say that you don’t have one, and you still have to be able to lead your organisation into and through the complexity.

We discussed how we make decisions when we are working with complexity and there is no obvious answer.  How do we make decisions with our hearts, or gut decisions?

When things aren’t clear at all, how do we live with that ambiguity and not be tempted to step in and do something?  Can we resist the temptation and step back and see the patterns and potential ways forward?

The role of a leader may switch from finding a solution to managing organisational distress caused by ambiguity, while testing for the way forward.

For me this has been really evident in working with organisations making the transition to the NDIS. The NDIS has been a unique market transition for disability organisations.  There are some lessons we can look to from the UK, but mostly organisations in Australia had to try different models, markets, services; build up what works, dampen down what doesn’t.

On a much wider level I thought about the failure of governments in many complex situations to lead effectively.  Governments often pretend they’re in the simple zone and provide a simple answer, when the issue is complex.


The evening was, in and of itself, an exercise in complexity and ambiguity. There are no answers to the questions posed.  What The Lab fostered for me was a mind of curiosity, fuelled by really authentic discussions.

I will be back for many more.

[I have known Tim Laporte for many years as a colleague. There was no financial gain to me from this article].