‘Do what the situation requires rather than what you are comfortable with’

Who doesn’t love an organisation chart? What’s the point of an induction day if we don’t know where we sit in the hierarchy or to whom we can pass the buck when things have gone a little off-kilter?  

But therein lies the problem – not the chart itself per se, just the fact that our default system in times of flux, challenge or complexity,  is a top-down process corralling everyone onto their usual pens and using a cattle-stick to prod them into productivity, doing exactly what they’ve done before. But we all know that if you always do what we’ve always done, we’ll always get what we’ve always got. So how do we break this cycle?

Complex vs Complicated

What you need to know is whether your organisation sees issues and challenges as complex or complicated; there is a difference! 

If you manage a complex organization as if it were just a complicated one, you’ll make serious, expensive mistakes.”

Sargut and McGrath1

Complicated systems (or problems) may have many parts, yet when these parts interact, they do not change each other.2 Outcomes can usually be predicted by knowing the starting condition(s).1  Reaching the agreed goal is the measure of success.3 

Complex systems comprise features and components that may operate in patterned ways but whose interactions and interconnectivity change one another, with such change being irreversible and largely unexpected.2  

Glouberman and Zimmerman4 demonstrate the differences by comparing the issues of sending a rocket to the moon (complicated) and brining up a child (complex) (Table 1).

Table 1: Complicated and Complex Problems (adapted from Glouberman S, Zimmerman B. Reproduced with kind permission from the Copyright Servicesof Library and Archives Canada.)

Sending Rocket to MoonBringing up a Child
Formulae are critical and necessaryFormulae have a limited application
Sending one rocket increases assurance that the next will be OKRaising one child provides experience but no assurance of success with the next
High levels of expertise in a variety of fields are necessary for successExpertise can contribute but is neither necessary nor sufficient to assure success
Rockets are similar in critical waysEvery child is unique and must be understood as an individual
There is a high degree of certainty of outcomeUncertainty of outcome remains
Optimistic approach to problem possibleOptimistic approach to problem possible

Complexity; The Leadership Style-Guide

 ‘Rational’ leaders, not unlike Actuaries, rely on ordered solutions; the top-down approach, wanting more for less, increasing regulatory control and demanding accountability2to ensure order and decision making, while stifling creativity. Conversely, leaders with Emotional Intelligence use complexity leadership theory (CLT), to focus on emergent processes within complex systems and operate in a contextual and interactive fashion, emphasising the importance of social interactions in the change process.5 

Adapting is something we often do unconsciously; for example,when a set of traffic lights fail, there is an initial bit of chaos, then drivers organise themselves and traffic flows fairly; the Covid-19 pandemic has resulted in local organised shopping for vulnerable people and companies have found creative ways to keep their business afloat by facilitating working  from home.

In effect, CLT is shared leadership –the social interactions within a workplace ‘network’ enable leadership through social capital.6


In complexity we need to explore how we approach problem solving and innovation. Organisations require both ‘traditional’ management and emotionally intelligent approaches in order to facilitate maximum productivity and engagement, be that from staff or clients.

New ways of looking at issues, and indeed, changing one’s leadership style can be difficult. Manging staff to adopt a different approach to change can be equally challenging. However, now is the time for action! It is not only the United Kingdom that is having to work out how to survive in this ‘new normal’; the world is already exploring how this may work. You need to be part of this exciting challenge.

Real Healthcare Solutions can facilitate your journey!


1. Sargut G, McGrath RG. Learning to Live with Complexity. HRB. September 2011. Available at: https://hbr.org/2011/09/learning-to-live-with-complexity

2. Uhl-Bien M, Arean M. Complexity leadership: Enabling people and organizations for adaptability. Organizational Dynamics. 2017. 46;9-20.

3. Messervy L. Designing for emergence: Navigating organizational disruption and complexity. UX Collective. 2020. Available at: https://uxdesign.cc/designing-for-emergence-navigating-organizational-disruption-and-complexity-d49611469103

4. Glouberman S, Zimmerman B. Complicated and Complex Systems: What Would Successful Reform of Medicare Look Like? Commission on the Future of Health Care in Canada. 2002. Available at: https://secure.patientscanada.ca/sites/default/files/Glouberman_E.pdf

5. Marion R, Uhl-Bien M. Leadership in complex organizations. Leadership Quarterly. 2001;12:389–418.

Towler A. Complexity Leadership: Understanding organizations as dynamic and complex systems of social interactions. QC Net. 2020. Available at: https://www.ckju.net/en/dossier/complexity-leadership-complex-dynamic-organizations-social-interactions/32050

Photo by John Barkiple on Unsplash.

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