The Death of “Business as Usual”
Continual litigation. Decreased budgets. Climate change. Increased public scrutiny… The external environment keeps getting more challenging, and the demands keep increasing. If that weren’t enough, there are internal changes to deal with: administrative re-organizations, a changing workforce, departmental mandates, political swings that lead to drastic shifts in policy and priorities…

Any one of these factors, in isolation, would place stress on an organization. Put them together and federal resource management agencies seem to be caught in a perfect storm of continual upheaval. There is simply no such thing as “business as usual” anymore.

The Leader’s Dilemma
For leaders, these trends can produce a feeling of being bombarded by demands and overwhelmed by information. When a leader looks for tools to cope with this situation, traditional wisdom (“plan better” or “gather more data”) offers little help. The reason may lie in the increasingly complex environment in which we live.

Everyone agrees that the pace of change has increased exponentially. Everyone agrees that our world is more interconnected than ever before. What we may fail to appreciate, however, is the implications that those two factors have for our lives and our organizations.

Increased rates of change and increased connectedness lead to degrees of complexity unlike those we have encountered before. Complex systems are intrinsically different than complicated ones; they behave in different ways based on different governing dynamics. This article summarizes insights from a variety of recent sources about today’s complex environment and how that affects leadership.

Complicated vs. Complex
In the article “A Leader’s Framework for Decision Making,” David Snowden and Mary Boone point out that complicated systems have many interlocking parts, each with a different function, and use a Ferrari as an example. If you have a problem with your Ferrari, you don’t want to lift up the hood and just start trying things: you want a mechanic with particular expertise in Ferraris. This example illustrates the principle that when dealing with a complicated system, expert knowledge often provides answers about how to intervene when something isn’t working.

There are, however, two important characteristics of Ferraris (and complicated systems in general) that prevent them from qualifying as complex:

  1. Although there are many parts, each with a different purpose, the parts maintain the same function over time. In other words, they don’t adapt.
  2. There is one ideal way that these parts are supposed to fit together.

Traditional management tools and approaches – including, for example, lengthy Master Plan documents and highly centralized decision making — emerged from a view of natural resource management as complicated but not necessarily complex. In this model, a single leader made all or most of the critical decisions and staff executed them. The underlying rationale seemed to be that if a leader was smart enough and had enough good data, he or she could figure out the right decision.

Is Our Worldview Obsolete?
The idea of there being a “right” decision in regard to the complex problems resource managers face seems less and less viable in today’s environment. In her book Leadership and the New Science, Margaret Wheatley argues that our current organizational structures – which emphasize control, standardization, and top-down directives – emerged out of a Newtonian view of the universe as a giant machine, ultimately orderly and ultimately predictable. It was complicated — incredibly complicated, even – but if someone had all the facts, theoretically they could figure out how everything would play out. Our organizational structures attempt to replicate that order and predictability on a smaller scale.

Scientific revolutions in the 20th Century, Wheatley points out, have delivered a radically different understanding of the universe, one we have barely begun to come to terms with. The picture of the world revealed through experiments in quantum physics makes the notion of a predictable, machine-like structure obsolete. On the contrary, they present us with a world in which the very fact of observing a phenomenon changes how that phenomenon unfolds. Embedded in this picture is an understanding of the world as vastly more complex than a predictable machine could be. Instead, the world is seen as a living, interactive system in which everything is connected and everything affects everything else.

Wheatley proposes that our organizations, and we ourselves, are still operating on the incomplete and outdated Newtonian model. If she is right — if our mental picture of the universe doesn’t correspond with the reality we encounter every day — it may help explain why so many leaders feel ill-equipped to respond to the pace and scope of change they face. Simply put, our expectations may be inappropriate and unrealistic.

How, then, can leaders develop a more accurate picture of the environment in which they are operating? And, if they succeed, how will they lead differently? To answer these questions, we need a basic understanding of what makes a system complex and how complex systems differ from complicated ones.

Understanding Complex Systems
The emerging field of complexity science — which studies patterns at work in structures as diverse as economies, eco-systems, epidemics and social networks — has identified basic characteristics common to all complex systems. These include interdependence, adaptation, and unpredictability.

Because of interdependence, any change in a complex system quickly affects the system’s other parts. Because of adaptation, those parts then respond, setting off further chains of effects and responses. As a result, complex systems – such as the social, economic, and political environment in which national lands are managed — are extremely unpredictable.

What implications does this have for leaders responsible for those lands? The remainder of this article will explore four basic recommendations for leading in a complex environment:

  1. Expect to “tame” complex problems, not solve them.
  2. Resist coming to a “final” judgment.
  3. Pay attention to system response patterns.
  4. Develop a collaborative leadership approach.

Recommendation #1: Tame The Problem
As mentioned before, in a complicated system – which has many parts but one ideal way of functioning — expert knowledge of the system can provide solutions that bring the system back into the ideal mode. But you can’t bring a complex system into an ideal mode, no matter how much expertise or information you have. Complex systems are in constant flux and there is no ideal mode to return to.

Let’s consider a practical example. Imagine that a threatened species uses parts of your park or forest for breeding. The completion of an EIS has been delayed and the results are guaranteed to be contested when they are finally released: environmental groups with a history of litigating fall on one side of the issue and well-organized and highly vocal recreation groups – some with strong congressional ties — fall on the other. Whatever the report’s results, your decision will have significant impacts on visitor recreation. Local politicians in the midst of a fierce campaign battle have picked up the issue and each is championing an opposing view about what the final decision should be. Regional leaders in your agency have asked you to keep them apprised of the situation as it unfolds.

In this kind of complex situation, seeking to contain and mitigate the issue is a much more realistic approach than trying to “solve” it once and for all. Even after an initial decision is made, and the accompanying spike of public and media attention fades, a “tamed” problem can always revert to something a bit wild and unpredictable. Remembering that, despite our natural desire to “solve” the problem and move on, could be critical to a successful long-term response.

Recommendation #2: Resist “Final” Judgments
In the above scenario, one thing is clear: failure to communicate proactively with any of the key stakeholders in this situation is likely to be costly. With the communication technology and social networks at the public’s disposal, a seemingly small oversight can quickly mushroom into a major issue. Damage control can then consume large amounts of time and energy.

Knowing the above, federal resource leaders would be wise to continually update their information – even about situations they think are clear and straightforward — and to maintain a healthy skepticism about their own assumptions. Being certain about the “best” strategy in response to a complex issue is liable to backfire, as this approach leaves little room for responding to new developments and outside information. Instead, leaders should keep in mind that their read on a situation may be incomplete and that the system in which they operate may be in the process of changing in ways that aren’t yet obvious.

Recommendation #3: Pay Attention to Patterns
Given the inherent volatility of complex systems, it’s easier to see trends and patterns looking back at what’s already occurred. When it comes to decision making about a complex problem, Snowden and Boone recommend an experimental approach of trying small interventions and watching for patterns of what works and what doesn’t. Once again, this requires ongoing monitoring and adjustment as opposed to settling on a decision early and sticking firmly to it.

Leaders are also advised to attend to the disruption of patterns in complex systems. In Managing the Unexpected, Karl Weick and Kathleen Sutcliffe argue that large and seemingly unexpected negative events are almost always accompanied by early warning signals: they disrupt existing patterns well before becoming a crisis if only leaders are attentive enough to pick up on the disruptive cues. Weick and Sutcliffe discovered that high reliability organizations, which respond superbly to unexpected situations, have developed methods to maintain alertness and sensitivity to subtle changes in the system that could indicate that a serious problem is brewing.

For experienced federal resource managers, a key element in this is resisting the temptation to simplify the situation before them and assume it is just like ones they have already encountered many times before. In a complex context, assuming that one already has an accurate read on the situation – which typically eliminates further questioning and updating of one’s perceptions — could be a dangerous mistake.

Recommendation #4: Develop Collaborative Leadership
A collaborative leadership approach can be an effective safeguard against this kind of insulated thinking. By collaborative leadership I don’t mean that no one is the boss or that all decisions are made by consensus; I simply mean that the leadership environment is one in which differing perspectives, from a range of staff, are invited and embraced.

Gaining input from people with different ways of thinking, who hold different positions in the organization, reduces the likelihood that something important will be overlooked. It provides a much broader network of information sources and offers collaborators a different level of ownership in final decisions. Most of all, collaborators may have innovative way of dealing with problems that would otherwise be neglected. In a complex environment, these characteristics are vitally important.

Developing a truly collaborative leadership environment takes time and conscious effort, however, and some team members may not see the value of doing so. For individuals used to a top-down style, a collaborative approach can be disorienting. Getting everyone on the team to understand and value a collaborative approach can require finesse and patience.

For a leader interested in taking a collaborative approach with their team, the following elements are key: developing common expectations, building mutual trust and respect, and making it safe to disagree.

Develop Common Expectations
The idea of developing common expectations may seem rudimentary, but in my experience, very few leadership teams truly have clear and shared expectations. It is very common for team members to feel like the expectations should be obvious and that it isn’t worth spending time to define them. The typical result is inefficiency and conflicting agendas and a general sense that team meetings aren’t very productive and/or don’t address the real issues on the team.

Posing the following simple questions to all team members is a good way to assess how clear your team is about expectations:

  1. What is the job of this team?
  2. What do you see as your roles, responsibilities, and decision space?
  3. What agreements do we have about meetings – regarding agenda development, pre-work, note taking, meeting facilitation, and follow up?
  4. How do we analyze problems and develop responses to them?
  5. How do decisions get made?

If members can answer the above questions clearly and with a fair degree of consistency, the team is well positioned to develop the kind of collaborative leadership discussed here. If not, the first order of business should be getting clear answers to these questions.

Build Trust & Respect
With a foundation of shared expectations in place, teams can productively focus on deepening the quality of their professional relationships. Having strong professional relationships does not mean agreeing all the time or being close friends; it means developing mutual trust and respect and having a shared commitment to the goals of the team.

Teammates with strong relationships will be able to work through inevitable conflicts in ways that preserve the dignity, autonomy, and interests of both parties. When the conflicts can be addressed directly and brought to a positive resolution, the relationship in question becomes even stronger in the process. The trust and skills to do this are developed through a process of intentional effort and follow through over time. How does one begin that process?

The key is establishing trust and respect as core leadership values and then initiating dialogue about the topic. This is not a one-time exercise to be done on a retreat (though that can be a useful starting point), rather it is an ongoing conversation about how the team is operating, where it can improve, etc. Talking about the current level of trust and respect, and how to go farther, needs to be something the team does periodically if trust and respect are going to be strong factors working in the team’s favor.

A simple way to assess the current level of trust in your team is to ask yourself and others how direct team members can be about the difficult issues – personal feedback on frustrating behaviors, how money will get spent, etc. The majority of work relationships operate in a status quo where many observations, responses, and even entire areas of discussion are “off limits” because of the fear of conflict. To achieve the kind of collaborative leadership that complex systems demand, a leader must develop strategies for speaking about the sensitive issues that have up to now been avoided.

Make It Safe to Disagree
This third element is a by-product of the first two, with one specific additional requirement: that the leader does not allow the formal authority of their position to inhibit team members from expressing their views.

A truly collaborative team environment means that all members contribute their perspectives, even when they disagree with one another or the boss. Such an environment will not develop spontaneously, no matter how well-intentioned people are, without a strong and consistent commitment on the part of the leader. There are simply too many built-in inhibitors at both the individual and organizational level.

Individually, we are hard-wired to defer to those in power: we do so automatically, sometimes to an extent that surprises us. This instinctive response is only reinforced in organizations like the Forest Service and Park Service with a strong emphasis on chain-of-command. During a pre-session interview a few years ago, one Regional Forester stated clearly that his biggest frustration with an otherwise high-performing team of regional directors was their tendency to salute and say “Yes sir!” instead of offering genuine critiques of his thinking. One goal in working with that team was to help them reach that place of transparent collaborative dialogue.

Getting there requires a kind of risk that most team members will only take when the leader has consistently demonstrated genuine interest in people’s opinions and an ability not to take opposing views as a personal challenge.

As technology and interconnectedness have re-shaped our society, the environments we work in have become far more complex than in the past. When we fail to appreciate this fact, we may bring unrealistic expectations and counter-productive choices in our work as leaders. A desire for quick top-down decisions, final judgments, and solutions that don’t have to be monitored can easily backfire. These approaches may lead us to overlook important warning signals and cause problems to ripple outward in ways they need not have.

A more realistic outlook involves a goal of containing and managing complex problems, continually questioning one’s assumptions and judgments, and being sensitive to response patterns at work in the environment. A collaborative leadership approach – in which final decision authority is clear and utilized to move things forward but where diverse views and perspectives are genuinely welcomed – will improve the range of information gathered, the quality of final decisions, and the creative thinking displayed. Last but not least, such an environment will invite levels of ownership and commitment that a traditional, top-down approach does not.

Collaborative leadership takes consistent effort. There is no guarantee a team will get there. If they do, however, the positive results– in terms of quality of decisions, level of commitment, and staff morale — will be well worth the effort.

Camillus, John – “Strategy as a Wicked Problem” Harvard Business Review,
November, 2007

Christian, David – Big History[CDs/audio] The Teaching Company, 2008

Page, Scott – Understanding Complexity[DVDs]The Teaching Company, 2009

Snowden, David & Boone, Mary – “A Leader’s Framework for Decision Making”
Harvard Business Review, May 2008

Weick, Karl and Sutcliffe, Kathleen – Managing the Unexpected Jossey-Bass, 2001

Wheatley, Margaret – Leadership and the New Science Berrett-Koehler, 2006


Joshua has been studying the intersections between leadership, creativity, and transformational change for over 25 years. His career as a consultant began in 1991 and has included settings ranging from national parks and corporate boardrooms to maximum-security prisons.