Figure It Out is the principle at work when most of our time is spent working on new problems.

When a problem hasn’t been solved before, when no one has the answer, when knowledge and experience and relationships must be relied on, when learning is occurring while working is happening too—it’s Figure It Out at play.

Figure It Out is as applicable to determining strategy as it is to leading a project as it is to performing a task for the first time. It applies to metawork, too. And it especially applies to self-work: the growth and development we all say we’re after.

We have a way of turning methods and tools into something of a product—as if they were something we could visit a general store to purchase, bring to our workplace, and voila!, everything is fixed. 

The practice is called industrialization, a term I first heard applied in this way in a presentation from Dave Snowden, and the We here is a royal We since this practice is something that consultants and corporations do as a matter of course in the effort to scale their creation of value.

I’ve taken to labeling these products big-P process—the models, methods, methodologies, frameworks, tools, and anything else of their ilk which are indiscriminately applied in our organizations in the hope of solving problems.

Lean is an especially useful example. In Japan, when Kiichiro Toyoda and Taiichi Ohno were in charge, Lean wasn’t Lean. It was just the way Toyota did things.




Toyota’s way of doing things emerged as a result of the context of a post World War II economic recovery, when efficient manufacturing was necessary because raw materials were in short supply. So Toyota redesigned everything to support automation and the elimination of waste, and not just its manufacturing practices, but its human resources practices, its budgeting practices, its planning practices, and the rest of the company’s systems.

What is especially unique is that Toyota arrived at its way of doing things through thinking and learning. Toyota did not implement the Toyota production system. The Toyota Production System emerged from a consistent thinking and learning effort, an effort that even included a means of always questioning the prevailing way of doing things. 

(Think about that: their way of working has questioning their way of working built in!)

American manufacturers rightfully grew curious as Japanese cars became more affordable and of better quality and they did what any of us would do: attempted to copy this new manufacturing process in pursuit of the same ends. 

What they copied were the things that were easily replicable, the big-P processes of the Toyota production system, which by then had been becoming, with the help of American management consultants, the Toyota Production System. But what they did not copy because they could not copy was how the Toyota Production System was representative of how Toyota did everything, not only its manufacturing. Toyota’s entire enterprise was designed and honed to support the requirements of its manufacturing practices.

For American manufacturers to copy that they would have had to redesign everything. So what’s the point of copying if a complete re-imagination was required?

Well I guess that’s the point. 

“Corporations love process,” says Allen Holub, “Because they believe process is how you achieve good outcomes.” 

It is one thing to use an industrialized Kaizen big-P process to improve some little-p process in a department. It’s something else entirely to take the principles of Lean and reorient an organization in the effort to improve efficiency. Using the tools and methods of the Toyota Production System will only improve the operation insofar as the tools and methods are capable of delivering improvement in the context of the organization’s prevailing way of doing things. 

Lean isn’t a tool or a methodology for Toyota. It is how they do everything. But for many organizations that use Lean, Lean is one of many tools and methodologies used to improve efficiency. Using Lean in this way can only help an organization to the point where it meets the constraints of existing organizational practices, most especially related to human resources, budgeting, and technology. 

That’s all okay if we’re aware of the inherent limitations of an approach. But we’re … (usually) not.

My point here may be misconstrued so I want to be sure we’re communicating effectively. It’s not that Lean is the problem, it’s that Lean isn’t the solution—nor is design thinking, agile, Magnet, Balanced Scorecard, or any industrialized big-P process found in healthcare delivery organizations today.

The problem is by applying Lean, by applying Process, we essentially eliminate the consideration of context, which is the most important consideration when working in complexity. Industrialization systematically eliminates the need for thinking and learning because big-P process does those things for us.

This critique isn’t absolute. Yes, thinking and learning still happen in organizations that use industrialized big-P processes. But it’s rarely the kind of double-loop learning required. 

We don’t do enough thinking about our big-P processes and what those processes require and what those processes produce before employing them. We just use them, with little thought given to context, and even less thought given to the conditions required to ensure their success thinking they will work and then being surprised (at best) or moving on to whatever is next (at worst) when results aren’t what we’d hoped them to be. 

It makes for less effective work.

Has Lean led to improvement in organizations? Most assuredly so. Has Lean also resulted in lots of wasted effort? It has! Likely staggering amounts of waste! 

The same can be said of every other industrialized big-P process we put into use as a way to meaningfully change whatever it is we’re intending to change. 

What happens when we commit to big-P process (models, methods, methodologies, frameworks, tools, et. al) is this: We (more often than not) commit to not thinking originally about the situation we’re trying to use it in. That approach worked when work was complicated. Now it’s (more often than not) complex.

No black belt, green belt, best-selling book, training course, designation, nor certification is a substitute for what we need in addition to these things: awareness of context and better thinking and learning.

That’s the process for good outcomes.

Whoa! Things have changed. 

Just like that. And while there’s a chance we’ll return to our regular ways of doing things, there’s a greater likelihood this experience is going to lead to a very different work environment than the one we knew at the end of February 2020. 

While COVID-19 is going to be seen as the catalyst, it’s more likely COVID-19 and the pandemic have made visible a reality that’s been with us for some time: We work (and more importantly live) in complexity. 

You can read my introduction to complexity here. You’ll want to explore a bunch more, so if you’re in the mood for learning, enroll in this six-day, six-email complexity introduction email course. And then, if you’re really into it, you can check out my post The Now of Work which further illustrates these concepts and introduces additional ideas.

Here’s the bottom line: Figuring out complexity for yourself is really the only way I’ve found to understand complexity, and COVID-19 is as practical an introduction to complexity as there is.

What’s most important to know about complexity in this moment, for the context of navigating the next few weeks, is this:

  • Complexity produces surprise. It’s not always an extreme surprise like COVID-19, it can be smaller surprises, too: an upset patient, an employee calling out sick, a reorganization, a new regulation, a reaction from a colleague you weren’t expecting—any unexpected event, whether it rates astonishing or not. Often, a surprise leads to another surprise, etc, etc.
  • Because of surprise, a linear, rule-following, always do it this way approach will not be as effective as you might hope and, in fact, could make the situation worse. (The approach is called command and control management. It’s how we’ve learned to work and is, more or less, how we’ve worked until just a few weeks ago. Now everything seems different because it is different.)
  • As a result, our normal relationship with cause and effect is tossed aside. While we usually expect a certain outcome when we take a defined action, in complexity cause and effect relationships can’t be determined until after the fact. So you may be certain your idea is the idea that will solve a particular problem, but we won’t know for sure until the problem has been solved.

Getting introduced to complexity through something like COVID-19 can be a disorienting experience. It feels like things are crazy, because in fact they are, but it doesn’t mean the situation isn’t logical.

A lot of smart people have done (and are doing) a lot of smart thinking about complexity. So let’s lean on them and learn from them in this moment and in the next few weeks. They’ve used their prior experiences with constant surprise—from the extreme to the teensy-weensy—to develop models to navigate this apparent-to-them and new-to-us reality. We can use them in figuring out what to work on, taking action, and learning from all the change.

Figuring Out What to Work On

Perhaps you’ve heard of agile software development. The idea emerged from frustration with what is known as waterfall software development. Using a waterfall method to develop software in a complex environment is a recipe for useless software because waterfall requires high levels of certainty when, in complexity, certainty only exists after the fact.

The folks who authored the agile software manifesto knew this and prioritized testing ideas of certainty in a responsive manner by creating software based on four values, known as the Manifesto for Agile Software Development. Here it is:

  • Individuals and interactions over processes and tools
  • Working software over comprehensive documentation
  • Customer collaboration over contract negotiation
  • Responding to change over following a plan

“That is,” wrote the manifesto’s authors, “while there is value in the items on the right, we value the items on the left more.”

The issue with waterfall is it’s slow and rigid. Sometimes slow and rigid is the right approach. In a complex context, however, flexibility and responsiveness are of higher value because requirements are changing faster than software can be written using a waterfall method.

An agile approach welcomes constant change because the development team knows this is the reality of the environment. Things change. How fast they change isn’t so important as working in a way that acknowledges things are always changing

So perhaps you and your team find yourselves in a situation of trying to figure out what is worthy of being worked on and what you should just let go, at least for the time being. Consider using an interpretation of the manifesto as a way to guide you in making those decisions. 

Then deliver on customer (broadly speaking) needs without falling back on your usual waterfall-like processes. Focus on being helpful in the moment by starting with a blank work plan. What do they need now? What are they going to need in the very near future?

As you work, concentrate on the people you’re working with and your interactions with them over holding true to your usual tools or processes, commit to creating services or products they can use now, collaborate with each other closely (but more than six feet!) rather than disappearing for some time only to reemerge with something misfit for whatever changed in the interim, and respond to what’s different today rather than staying committed to an outdated plan—even if that plan was created last week.

If it seems like it might make more sense to throw your entire annual work plan out the window and commit to helping in the moment, you’re probably right. So do it.

Manifesto for Agile Software Development | Principles behind the Agile Manifesto




Taking Action

The way to solve problems in complexity, or move in the direction of problem solving, is through an approach the Cynefin framework calls Probe, Sense, Respond.

A probe is an action, one guided by knowledge and experience, and it’s used to get started. When it’s impossible to know what will solve a problem, we’re left to try things we have good reason to believe will solve the problem. 

The thing about working in complexity is it’s not entirely clear what the best next step is. That’s a function of being unable to connect cause and effect prior to moving forward. It’s one thing to think something is the right action, it’s an entirely different thing to know it’s the right action. Experience can only help you in deciding what to attempt, not in ensuring what you attempt will be successful. So we probe.

Then we sense, which is another word for learning, and what we’re looking for is the effect a probe has on the problem. Did it solve it? Did it make it worse? Did it help us identify another problem? Did it move us toward solving the problem?

Then we respond, which is the amplification or dampening of the probe’s effect and deciding what to do next.

It sounds like how a clinician treats a patient, doesn’t it? Exactly.

The entire practice of diagnosis is probe, sense, and respond—a series of actions uncovering additional information and help a provider make a diagnosis. Treatment works similarly. A provider decides on a course of treatment, senses whether a patient responds to the treatment (a good thing) or reacts to the treatment (a bad thing), and decides what to do next, if anything. 

We effectively already work this way, too. It’s just that we haven’t realized it quite yet. 

We’re fairly competent at recognizing when what we’re doing isn’t working and naturally adjust course as a result. But we can make it easier for ourselves and our colleagues by adopting a Probe, Sense, Response mental model because, after all, we spend most of our time working in complexity.

Here’s an example some of you may have experienced for the first time recently: working from home. If you’ve never worked from home before and were suddenly thrust into a work-from-home environment, figuring out how to do it happened (and likely still happening) through a series of probes. As you worked from the kitchen table, or outside on the patio, or around the needs of your children, you sensed what was working for you and what wasn’t. Then you adjusted your practices to be more productive. 

We’ve all been in a different work environment for some years, COVID-19 has provided the collective rite of passage for realizing it. It’s going to take time and probes to figure out how to work effectively in it. In perpetuity. Because it will continue to change. 

So try new ideas, learn from them, and adjust those ideas based on what you find. The only way to be successful in a complex environment is to use this Probe, Sense, Respond approach.

What is complexity? | A Leader’s Framework for Decision Making (Harvard Business Review)

Learning from All the Change

One of my favorite quotes about complexity is from Harold Jarche. It’s so good: “Work is learning and learning is the work.”

He captures the essence of working in complexity with those eight words. 

I think it can be easy to believe learning is superfluous in a crisis or always-on-the-verge-of crisis situation like COVID-19, but the reality is you have no choice but to learn in order to navigate a complex environment. Learning is the job. 

Constantly being oriented to learning as we work, though, is a new concept for most of us. Learning isn’t something (that can be) left to the Learning and Development departments, or conferences, or even books for that matter. It’s those things and other traditional learning activities as well as the interactions you have with others and the day-to-day activities of your job that lead to learning, now and always.

Perhaps you’ve been introduced to the 70-20-10 rule from the Center for Creative Leadership. It posits 10 percent of our learning happens as a result of coursework and training, 20 percent as a result of our relationships, and 70 percent from the work we do. The rule gets misinterpreted and misapplied far too often in my opinion so I hesitate to even write about it; but the lesson to draw on is how much of our learning happens as a result of just … working. 

And that’s where Harold Jarche’s Seek > Sense > Share framework can help us. Because it’s critical to make meaning of what we learn if we’re to learn as much from it as we can. 

Seeking is the activity of collecting information. We do it a lot of different ways, from the information we gather as we work as well as what we read, watch, and listen to. It comes from personal experience and the experiences of others. “Seeking is finding things out and keeping up to date,” writes Jarche.

Sensing is the activity of giving information meaning and using it. It’s turning information into knowledge, in a way. It’s reflection. It’s doing. It’s doing and reflection. It’s putting into practice what we learn.

Sharing is just that: what we do to share what we’ve learned with a broader audience—whether with our employees or colleagues or on social media. Acts of sharing help us further our understanding of our learning and create opportunities to collaborate and learn from others.

Sensing is the most difficult of the three, according to Jarche. I agree. But it’s also a natural activity and one we can do with more conscientiousness. It’s keeping track of new learning. It’s an awareness of adjustment. It’s thinking. And doing. And then thinking some more. It’s working (i.e., learning) intentionally and adapting as you continue to learn.

The opportunity is to be deliberate. To craft your information sources. To spend time thinking before and after doing. To take the time and effort to share while understanding your learning continues as a result.

But for now I recommend starting with work journaling. Here are three questions to answer at the end of each work day as we move through the next weeks:

  1. What stood out today?
  2. What did I learn today?
  3. What do I want to do differently tomorrow? What do I want to try tomorrow?

If you have the desire to go further, consider: 

Conclusion: Change and Transition

Complexity requires us to take a different approach to work. Doing so requires becoming comfortable with new mental models. The three described here can be helpful. Know there are many more.

This whole situation feels like a gigantic reset. And I think that’s okay because it can be a gigantic reset. It’s a burning platform to do the work of rethinking work, including the delivery of healthcare services, we’ve been needing to do for several decades—some of that work is already happening, while much of it will happen in the near future. 

I’d write something here about it not being easy, but that’s really not the case. The experience we’re going through, the psychological toll of COVID-19, the failure of current systems, the overburdened EDs and ICUs, the transition, is what isn’t easy. At the end of this we’re going to do anything required not to let it happen again. The change will be relatively straightforward.

It was a series of fitful yet fateful nights of sleep, amidst leading a massive and failing project, when I’d awake in strikes of anxiety, asking myself some version of the question: Why is work the way it is? 

Providers were upset. Patients waited. Employees wanted to quit, and did, or called-in sick, or said things in frustration to each other. My inbox and voicemail were overflowing with colleagues wanting answers. Word was getting out. And to the top. As in all the way to the top. 

We’d been expanding an existing contact center to allow for centralized appointment scheduling for each of the more than 200 primary care providers employed by the organization. Our project team had a plan, a budget, and a deadline. And we’d been making it happen. Quickly. 

That is until I realized the providers weren’t okay with transitioning their schedules to a standardized template. It’s obvious now, but this wasn’t a realization that occurred in the moment. No. It seeped out slowly and the project withered.

We did the only thing we felt like we could do: abandoned the idea of a scheduling template and attempted to find the solution on the operations side.

It was a disaster.

We made some progress; though mostly limping along implementing just a fraction of what the original vision had been. My confidence as “someone who got things done” was significantly shaken. My ego took a hit. I moved on to a different role in the organization. 

The experience started a professional transition for me that’s only recently arrived at a new beginning. Feeling failure, and feeling like a failure, made me want to explore what the heck went wrong and what I needed to do to prevent it from happening again. 

But that’s a realization I wouldn’t come to for a few more years. 

And little did I know that contact center project—what we were attempting to do, the environment we were doing it in, and the people we were doing it to—was emblematic of what’s happening in organizations everywhere.

A Pattern of Struggle

The new role provided a brief reprieve following the contact center debacle. There was some success. We implemented meaningful programs. I added a few bullet points to my resume. 

But I also experienced more of the same big vision, mediocre results loop playing out. A year later I accepted an offer to do something different.

Or so I thought.

Our boutique consulting company worked with healthcare administrators to implement strategy. We had customers around the country and across the healthcare continuum.

And here’s what happened: I. Saw. The. Same. Thing.

Big visions. Mediocre results.

Projects languished. And not for a lack of effort, or a lack of expertise, or a lack of experience. It was because of the milieu. It was systemic. It was a pattern!

I feel bad sharing I was excited but I was excited! Misery was everywhere! The results were routinely mediocre! It wasn’t just me who struggled to make projects happen—many organizations were struggling to make them happen. The bigger the project, the worse it often was. 

But this too wasn’t a realization that arrived overnight. It was slow. And painful. 

Yet it was this opportunity to see many projects, in diverse contexts, across dozens of organizations, and staffed by a variety of competent professionals that provided the knowledge that failing projects weren’t just a me problem. They’re an all of us problem. 

Failing projects touch everything everywhere and the consequences cascade across our work. Here are just three examples from my consulting travels:

  • We’d agree to a $25,000 project with a departmental leader in an organization with multi-billions in annual revenue and wait six weeks for contract approval and vendor set-up. The project should have been finished by the time we even started.
  • On a twelve-week engagement, for a project that required two working sessions each week, the project sponsor would attend the first several working sessions before bowing out to attend to more pressing matters. Once that happened, other project team members also started missing working sessions to attend to more pressing matters. The project schedule would be extended and extended. 
  • We’d spend the first six (unplanned) weeks of a project listening to team members discovering their workflows and business processes that just a few months before they promised they had been experts on.

It’s not to say any of these realities are wrong or right. It’s just to say they exist and, because of their existence, they create additional problems. 

And it’s our ways of doing things, realities we accept with little consideration, that we navigate to make change happen. It means we’re all attempting to solve problems without even considering the actual problems that are causing the problems we’re trying to solve!

This conclusion—that how we work is the real problem worth solving if we desire for ourselves, our teams, and our organizations to fulfill a vision worth fulfilling—is the one I arrived at as a result of the work experiences I’ve had.

Yet it’s eye opening to consider how much reflection was required to get to it. 

It was time and space that let it happen. I didn’t have an overflowing plate of responsibilities. I wasn’t asked to drink any information from a firehouse. I was only asked to be effective. I was asked to think and learn.

Thinking about our thinking isn’t something our jobs require, nor is thinking about how we work. Turning our thinking into learning isn’t either. But I’ve come to believe we must do much more of it if we want to break the cycle of big visions and mediocre results.

So why is work the way it is?

In a word: complexity

In a few more words: our system of management isn’t fit for an increasingly complex operating environment. 

We’ve come to believe in an approach to managing the work of organizations that actually solves fewer and fewer problems and—this part is crazy—often creates more and more problems as we use it. That’s right: how we work is making work harder.

That’s what I found in more than five years of study and practice—even though once I’d figured out where to look, every available resource says essentially the same thing.

It’s usually a look around your current work environment that allows this picture to be painted.

Consideration must be given to the needs of patients, providers, employees, and the community (or shareholders if you’re working in a for-profit outfit) in a modern healthcare delivery organization and that consideration must be delivered with a finite set of resources.

This is accomplished through an annual cycle of planning, budgeting, and goal setting; then the delivery and monitoring of services; and then the assessment of performance as it relates to the plan, budget, and goals—whether individual, departmental, or organizational. 

It’s a logical approach. It’s so, so logical. In fact, it’s so logical we have a hard time imagining, let alone believing, there may be any other way.

What happens when we work the way we work, an approach they call command and control, is we often promote the opposite of the behaviors organizations actually need from their employees and teams to excel in a complex environment. 

The 737-Max debacle at Boeing is an extreme example. An administration flubbing a pandemic response is another. That situation at Away Travel is also a representative case. And what was going on in the basement of the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia is another.

These are all examples of managing in a complex environment as if it weren’t. A problem may be solved in the short term—such as in this situation in a healthcare delivery organization—but what happens after that?




Better thinking and learning

Whether or not we realize it, we already operate in complexity. We just do it very clunkily. 

To reduce the clunk, to break the big visions and mediocre results cycle, we must improve our thinking and learning. 

A prescription like this—think and learn better?—is antithetical to our industrialized model of improving performance.

That’s the point.

The annual goal setting and performance review process is a good example here. It’s had, and continues to have, enormous consequences for organization performance while very few of us ever take the time to consider what those consequences might be. 

This method—setting individual goals and appraising individual performance—is followed year after year in an attempt to ensure “alignment” across the enterprise and distribute annual pay increases despite the knowledge indicating our accepted method of assessing performance can be detrimental to the organization’s creation of value.

Sometimes those consequences are significant, sometimes they are less so; the point is they exist, are often more misaligning than aligning, and very few of us have ever stopped to think about it.

I had a boss, one of the best I’ve worked for, share his thoughts: “Show me someone who leads by their annual goals,” he said, “and I’ll show you a bad leader.”

Yes, exactly! But why do we even set individual performance goals if that’s reality?

I’m not here saying that accepted practice when it comes to performance management is wrong, although it wouldn’t be how I’d do things if asked for my input; I’m saying we should orient ourselves around thinking about the consequences of our practices and improving them as a result of our learning.

How we work creates problems. We attempt to solve those problems through a variety of organizational initiatives. This is much of what work is for many of us. 

But these aren’t real problems. They don’t need to be, anyway. They are problems of our own creation and if we worked differently they wouldn’t exist. 

The reason they do exist is because we rarely think about how we work nor use learned experience as an opportunity to change it. We just work. We just use the tools and methods we’ve picked up along the way and hardly ever give consideration to their consequences. 

That hasn’t always been the case. How we work—an improved implementation of command and control—was a creation of some very smart people based in the context of the industrial revolution. They did an extensive amount of thinking and learning to create it. And it worked. Really well. For a long time.

But when we use the tools and methods of command and control management in a complex environment, without appropriate thinking or necessary learning, we’re using them in a way they weren’t necessarily designed for. We’re using them out of context.

A critical realization

Big visions and mediocre results are exhausting personally and detrimental to the organization. 

When we realize it, we can recognize the cause of it, and everything can change. 

For a long time, the most important pursuit of any healthcare delivery organization has been efficiency. It was an important pursuit. Much good has come of it.

But our context has changed. 

We’re realizing our organizations and the environment they operate in are increasingly more complex. And how we work isn’t fit for such an environment. 

In fact, it’s impossible. A CEO can’t make enough decisions to keep the organization operating in an efficient enough manner. An executive team can’t either. Neither can the project leader of a critical contact center implementation.

(Nor is top-down decision making even a viable management choice, for that matter.)

While most organizations will probably be fine, whatever the pace of transition to a more natural way of working may be, the individuals inside those organizations will run themselves ragged trying to keep up with a long list of demands using the existing way of doing things.

We’ll attempt to do more and more with less and less in the pursuit of ever increasing efficiency and solving problems of our own making. 

That is until you decide to make a different choice. A choice to improve your thinking and learning and realize for yourself what I’ve shared with you here through a professional transition of your own.

It’s then you’ll be able to answer the question: Why is work the way it is?

It’s the only way to figure it out.

She was in a noticeably better mood. It wasn’t the type of mood improvement made possible by a bit of good news. It was bigger. It was deeper. It may have been the cheeriest I’d seen her in the fifty-or-so interactions we’ve had.

She’s been cutting my hair for more than five years and so every five weeks, as part of the regular 30-minute chit-chat catch-up, I get an update on how her business is doing. 

In a word: Better.

A few months back she had made two changes that had started to bear fruit. First, she decided instead of working six days a week she was going to work four and steer clients to her availability as opposed to the other way around. Second, she increased her prices. 

More cash in her pocket. More time for her art. And more time for herself. After years and years of single-loop learning, struggling with the cash flow challenges of a sole proprietor and in constant burnout mode, she dabbled in a bit of double-loop learning. And it worked!

Double-loop learning is a funny name for the learning we do when we move beyond just solving problems (single-loop learning) and explore whatever it is we’re trying to do more holistically. Holistically is another funny word but I believe its collective specificity and vagueness capture what double-loop learning is all about: the product of inquiry, reflection, experience, and often trying newish ideas.

Those verbs make double-loop learning sound good. It is. And it should be how we work much more often than it is.

But we, our colleagues, and most people generally aren’t very good at double-loop learning. We often don’t question underlying assumptions, norms, and objectives in most situations, and we really should.

There are different contributing factors for why that’s the case and the first one worth addressing is because we don’t know double-loop is something we should be doing

Instead we’ve learned to work like thermostats: see problem, solve problem. Chris Argyris shares his canonical analogy:

… a thermostat that automatically turns on the heat whenever the temperature in a room drops below 68 degrees is a good example of single-loop learning. A thermostat that could ask, “Why am I set at 68 degrees?” and then explore whether or not some other temperature might more economically achieve the goal of heating the room would be engaging in double-loop learning.

Single-loop learning is problem solving. And our jobs do require problem solving. So it’s not that single-loop learning is something we shouldn’t be doing.

It’s that problem solving often isn’t enough. In complexity, simply solving the problem without appropriate consideration of the problem’s context can 1) prove fruitless, 2) produce an unsatisfactory result, or 3) make the problem even worse.

Here’s an example from a healthcare contact center struggling with a panoply of challenges. Those challenges manifest to the outside world as long caller wait times—“We’re currently assisting other callers. Thank you for your patience.”—with demands from the environment (patients, provider offices, and executive leadership) to reduce them.

The long caller wait time problem has been ongoing and is very public and so it receives a lot of attention when it requires attention. When that attention is given, caller wait times are reduced, and the environmental demands for improvement go away. That is, until the problem again becomes something everyone is complaining about—the hot and cold cycle sounds a bit like a thermostat doesn’t it?

Along the way someone came up with a metric, that average caller wait time should be less than 60 seconds, which immediately became a goal, and since then the (new) management team hasn’t had to wait for protests from the environment before deploying interventions in an attempt to meet the goal.

See problem. Solve problem. See problem. Solve problem. See problem. Solve problem. 

But no one has asked—whether they thought to, weren’t allowed to, or declined to—what they should have been asking: Why are these interventions, the same interventions we’ve been trying time and again, not working?

Double-loop learning would help this contact center in two ways:

  1. Informing and trying new interventions by learning what worked and what didn’t from previous attempts; and
  2. Instead of, for example, only asking “How do we decrease caller wait times?,” a double-loop approach would explore why the problem exists, the context of the wait-time problem, what’s contributing to it, different ways to think about it, and alternative ways to approach it. 

Double-loop learning is learning. It’s reflection on the way you think. It’s, as this Farnam Street blog post states, “the key to turning experience into improvements, information into action, and conversations into progress.”

It may even sound like how you work already, but I have bad news: Chris Argyris’s research says you probably don’t.

There are other factors aside from our lack of awareness that get in the way of double-loop learning including workplace culture, full calendars, an achingly long to-do list, others to be sure, and most importantly: our Big Egos.

Argyris wrote an entire article about this, provocatively titled: “Teaching Smart People How to Learn.” His central premise: because smart people (you) are generally successful, they tend not to be as open to learning, and worse: just knowing this information isn’t enough to overcome the challenge.

“Professionals embody the learning dilemma,” writes Argyris, “they are enthusiastic about continuous improvement—and often the biggest obstacle to its success.”

The reason is because we have a defensive posture toward reflecting on our individual contributions to any situation. We don’t want to admit, often to ourselves and more often to those around us, that we were wrong or we failed. And when the working environment doesn’t promote the admission of errors, the issue is worse, and gets worse as we climb the hierarchy and experience more success. 

It’s easy for us to point at external factors and difficult to turn inward when reflection is needed, as it often is. It’s the difference between what Argyris calls our “theory of action” and our “theory in use.”

“It is impossible to reason anew in every situation,” writes Argyris, “If we had to think through all the possible responses every time someone asked, ‘How are you?’ the world would pass us by.” So instead of constant reasoning, we create shortcuts for why things are the way they are.

“Therefore, everyone develops a theory of action—a set of rules that individuals use to design and implement their own behavior as well as to understand the behavior of others,” he continues, “Usually, these theories of actions become so taken for granted that people don’t even realize they are using them.”

A paradox of human behavior is we believe we’re employing a theory of action in any given situation, but if we were to look critically at our actual behavior, we’d discover our defensive posture and a different theory in use.

“Put simply,” he writes, “People consistently act inconsistently, unaware of the contradiction between their espoused theory and their theory-in-use, between the way they think they are acting and the way they really act.

To summarize: There is a discrepancy between what we think guides our actions and what our actions actually are. We’ll tell everyone, including ourselves, we’re interested in learning and improvement (theory of action), but as a result of desiring to avoid embarrassment or threat and feeling vulnerable or incompetent when the focus of learning and improvement turns to us, we generally attempt to avoid learning and improvement (theory in use).

And this isn’t just an individual problem. It’s also a gigantic problem for any organization. 




That’s because single-loop learning is how organizations are managed, too.

In a simplification to be sure, many of our organizations and some of the bosses we work for are analogous to the thermostat recognizing performance is cooling and, as a result, turning up the heat, never stopping to consider that how we work, manage, and organize may be part of the problem—if not the problem.

We—and this is the royal We—rarely reflect on how we do our work. We just don’t.

Here is an example illustrating what I mean: We’ve all participated in a process improvement event that led to better outcomes—but did you consider, or know anyone to consider, whether the method used to organize the process improvement event was the best method?

It just happened, right? Everyone just accepted the approach to the process improvement event without a minute of conversation on the proposed method.

The outcome was probably acceptable—but that isn’t the point. Here’s the point: What if the outcome could have been even better if the problem had been approached differently?

Why is it we so rarely consider whether how we’re working is actually the best way to work? Have you ever considered—or known anyone to consider—the methods used to produce the work? Why not do more double-loop learning on the work itself?

Let’s look at meetings. How many miserable meetings do you attend?

The next time you’re in a miserable meeting ask yourself: How might this be better? Or: 

  • What would happen if this meeting didn’t exist? 
  • Why does this problem require a meeting like this?
  • What behaviors does this bad meeting promote?
  • What work does this bad meeting produce?

You don’t have to stop there because there are many more questions worth asking. And not only about meetings.

Take the annual review process as another example. Does it work? Is it useful? Does individual goal setting lead to what we’re desiring? Are there better ways to manage performance? Is performance effectively managed using an annual goal setting and review process?

Work doesn’t have to be the way it is just because it is the way it is. It’s okay to question our methods of management and organization. In fact, we need to start questioning our methods of management and organization because how we do the work dictates the work we get.

“If you’ve spent your working life in a command and control environment you’ll assume there’s no other way to manage,” writes John Seddon, “It then is logical for you to improve results by just being better at ‘command and control.’”

Double-loop learning gives us the opportunity to revisit our misinformed logic and explore a different way to manage.

For two years early in my career I sat in on the weekly—get organized, discuss what needs discussing, make collaborative decisions—executive meeting. It seemed no matter the issue, there was one executive in particular who always asked some variation of the question, “What is best practice?,” as if the practice of asking the question resulted in a solved problem.

I was always bothered by it and never knew why. Now I do. It was just misinformed logic.

While there are still problems that benefit from the best practice treatment, there are far fewer of them than any of us might expect, and fewer with each passing year.

Best practice problem solving is perfect for complicated situations. But we work in complexity. And command and control management, the way most of our organizations are managed, was designed for an environment which only produces complicated problems. 

We need to work—and manage—differently in an environment that produces complex problems because complexity creates new problems which have never been solved before. New problems can’t be solved by a best practice solution because a best practice solution doesn’t yet exist! 

Complex problems can only be managed using an approach that starts with recognizing the problem’s context.

Attempting to solve a new problem with a best practice solution often results in failure: including trivial failures like bad meetings, useless performance appraisals, and even less-than-optimal process improvement outcomes.

And even trivial failure can be, and should be, a trigger to instigate double-loop learning. “If a new idea doesn’t work,” states that Farnam Street blog post, “it’s time to try something else.” 

Double-loop learning gives us the opportunity to try something else. Because what double-loop learning allows, instead of zeroing in on a problem just to solve it, is to explore why a problem exists.

It gives us a way to explore a problem’s context. It gives us an approach to solve problems in complexity because it provides a method to learn. And our jobs increasingly require learning about the problem we’re solving as we’re solving the problem.

Our jobs increasingly require double-loop learning.

“Many of us go through life only half awake.”
Bill James

There’s not a secret to improving how you and your team work. It just requires promoting things that organizations haven’t been very good at doing in a desire for complete efficiency, namely better thinking and learning by everyone.

It can be disconcerting to learn the way we work isn’t working.

It’s not an easy task, but not impossible. That’s the biggest hurdle. For you, for anyone, for me. In fact, when I first started finding evidence of a different worldview, I felt like I was never going to get it. New concepts, new ideas, new theories. It was overwhelming. (And exciting.)

So I created this list as a guide for where to go next, designed as a follow-on to the introductory email series you can sign-up for here if you haven’t already.

These are ten foundational ideas I’ve collected along the way that have helped me understand why work is the way it is and—most importantly—helped me to take action in finding the ways to work more effectively.

As you’ll learn, the only way to change work is through the work by doing the work.

Two Questions Worth Asking

Why is work the way it is?

What can we do about it?

Get Started With This Idea

(1) Niels Pflaeging has been a major influence in my learning on this subject. You’ll see his ideas sprinkled throughout much of my writing (and biases). My introduction to Niels started with his book Organize for Complexity: How to Get Life Back Into Work to Build the High-Performance Organization. Buy it. Read it. Read it again. (And again.)

Then This Idea

(2) A lot of improve-the-work initiatives are undertaken for the wrong reasons, namely to improve employee engagement or improve the organization’s culture. Dave Snowden’s Cynefin framework, especially the illustration of different business contexts and the introduction of complexity, provides us a different reason to work in a more natural way: so the business can be successful!

Here’s a quote: “Most situations and decisions in organizations are complex because some major change—a bad quarter, a shift in management, a merger or acquisition—introduces unpredictability and flux.”

Doesn’t that sound like the situations and decisions in your job? Read this: “A Leader’s Framework for Decision Making” in the Harvard Business Review.

Then These Ideas

(3) Command and control management relies on an incorrect assumption about human behavior, that humans dislike work and must be told what to do. What Douglas McGregor asserts in his seminal The Human Side of Enterprise (published in 1960! and still very relevant today) is if an employee is disengaging from the work it is as a result of how the organization is managed and not because of their human nature.

McGregor’s Theory Y postulates that under the right conditions employees seek responsibility and exercise self-direction and self-control in the pursuit of organizational objectives. In other words people can be trusted to do the work if conditions of trust are present. The book is (most assuredly) worth reading.

Here’s a summary of Theory X and Theory Y to familiarize yourself.

(4) Harold Jarche’s “Work is learning and learning is the work” insight was a revolutionary finding for me. What it means is work and learning are the same. We’re learning about the problems we’re solving as we’re solving them, because … complexity.

Here’s what Jarche writes: “There is no time to pause, go into the back room, and then develop something to address our learning needs. The problem will have changed by then. We need to learn as we work.”

(5) It’s human nature to desire proof that working differently, well … works.

It’s also dangerous because there is a natural bias to copy and paste what works for one organization into your own. This behavior is a big reason for why work is the way work is. When we copy and paste, we eliminate context, and we subcontract our thinking to methods, models, and consultants.

That said, Stanley McChrystal’s Team of Teams: New Rules of Engagement for a Complex World can scratch that natural itch in a way that studying private corporations can’t.

It’s the story (and much more) of when McChrystal took command of the Joint Special Operations Task Force in Iraq. What he found was the world’s best military and its conventional military tactics failing against an inferior enemy. This book is the story of the transformation required to work differently (not only to be successful, but largely to stop failing).

If the military can do it—command and control at its absolute height—so can your department.

And Then These Ideas

(6) Systems. I know about systems. I still don’t have a handle on systems. I’m not sure it’s possible to have a handle on systems. But seeing systems provides an explanation for why so many things are the way they are. That’s important.

A good start with systems is Donella Meadows’s Thinking in Systems: A Primer. Her twelve leverage points are worthwhile reading even if, taken together, it’s an advanced concept.

My … ahem … thing with systems is I’ve found the concept can be a little debilitating. As I’ve embraced the idea of systems, I’ve also become more reticent—at times—to take action. Which is perhaps the point. Nonetheless, it can be confusing.

Anyway, our world is systems. Important to know. 

(Also: John Gall’s Systemantics is a practical critique-like text about systems that’s been helpful to my understanding. Check to see if it’s available in a library near you.)

(7) Who in your organization can meet the needs of a single patient without working with other people? Yet most organizations are still highly focused on the performance of the individual employee, often at the expense of the team performance and value creation.

Individual performance is a myth. Performance reviews can be toxic. And while we’re on the topic: “Telling people what we think of their performance doesn’t help them thrive and excel, and telling people how we think they should improve actually hinders learning.”

Some out-of-context but bang-on quotations from management legends henceforth:

John Seddon: “The problem of people not working together won’t be solved by interventions such as teamworking, participation, empowerment programmes and the like, for one simple reason: it is the system that governs behaviour.” 

W. Edwards Deming, part one: “The fact is that the system that people work in and the interaction with people may account for 90 or 95 percent of performance.”

W. Edwards Deming, part two: “Put a good person in a bad system and the bad system wins, no contest.”

W. Edwards Deming, part three: “The role of management is to change the system rather than badgering individuals to do better.”

(8) Making change happen is literally the job we’re all paid to do. Unfortunately, the models of change that many of us have learned are incomplete or a misinterpretation of good theory. It’s had an unfortunate impact on our change outcomes.

So start with this delicious Niels Pflaeging blog post: Change is more like adding milk to coffee. It’s another mythbuster. Then read this one: Now to New: How to flip your company to perpetual beta

Then make another visit to Amazon for two essential books. John Kotter’s Leading Change will help you reacclimate to the situational aspects of managing change. And William Bridges’s Managing Transitions will be your guide to the psychological transition that accompanies every change, a concept we’ve essentially been ignoring to the detriment of the people we work with and the outcomes of our efforts.

(9) I want to bring some of these interconnected topics together. Actually, I am going to have Niels Pflaeging bring them together in this video where you can hear why he believes drinking more coffee and starting a smoking habit are good for your career:

(10) It’s time for reflection, for thinking, and applying these ideas to your work world. And the question Aaron Dignan asks in his book Brave New Work: Are You Ready to Reinvent Your Organization? is perfect for the exercise. It is this:

“What’s stopping you from doing the best work of your life?”

More Ideas


Better thinking and learning is what is required for organizations to return to a more natural way of working. 

To do that, to promote better thinking and learning, we need to improve our thinking and learning. 

That’s why I’ve created a weekly email series (currently) containing 34 advanced topics to help you increase your confidence in applying them. You’ll receive one email per week with the ideas, books, people to follow, videos, resources, et. al, I’ve been collecting and curating for more than five years. Think of it as a regular infusion of new thinking to help you make (more) change happen at work and in your career. 

Working with these ideas—learning, thinking, discussing them—is how to gain confidence in applying them. I’ve found that continued exploration to be the most important factor in helping me do that and I believe it will help you to do the same.

All 34 are yours for $10. And you’ll receive each additional idea added to the series, so there’s no telling what the final number will be. (You can always unsubscribe if your interests change.)

Receive The Weekly Email including examples of organizations working in this way already, a participatory change model you can use the moment you learn it, why mental models are foundational to the work we do, why organization principles are better than an organization’s values, and (at least) 30 more for the cost of two cups of coffee.


It’s easy to take for granted the professional development that comes with, well … just working.

Take your first job, for instance. It was perfectly acceptable to learn the skills of working while you worked. Your employer accepted that as an entry-level employee there would be a period of learning before you were, as they say, up to speed.

Why step off the accelerator?

Are you ever skilled enough at running meetings, having difficult conversations, managing projects, collaborating with colleagues, or anything else important to you and your continuing development as a professional?

Yet for many of us, it becomes comfortable to amble along throughout our careers rarely working to become really good at skills core to the performance of our jobs in a conscientious way.

The OK Plateau

This is the OK Plateau.

And for just about all of your skills, it’s where you are.

The OK Plateau, so named by Joshua Foer, is the phase of learning where a skill becomes automatic. It’s the final phase of a skill acquisition framework proposed by psychologists Paul Fitts and Michael Posner in 1967. They called it the autonomous phase and it’s the phase of learning where you’re using a skill and not thinking much about it.

Driving is a good example. You probably didn’t think much about your driving skills the last time you drove a car. That’s the autonomous phase.

But there was a time when you thought quite a lot about developing those skills.

That’s called the cognitive phase and it’s the first stage of skill development. You were developing knowledge and learning the explicit skills of driving: understanding road signs, the purpose of a turn signal, what the accelerator does, and the like.

The middle stage, associative, is the phase of applying your knowledge to develop a skill. It’s practice. It’s what you were doing when you first got behind the wheel and continued to do until you became so comfortable with driving that you stopped thinking much about the activity.

And once you were using the skill and not thinking much about it, you were on the OK Plateau.

The OK Plateau is a decidedly okay place to be. A skill that sits on the OK Plateau is one that has no obvious reason for any further improvement. It’s the place of competence. It’s good enough.

And being good enough at the set of skills required to do your job was good enough for nearly a hundred years.

Then it changed.

Working in Complexity

That’s not quite right. It’s been changing. It’s going to continue to change.

And that’s the point.

At the center of the change is our increasing awareness of complexity and, as it happens, working in a complex environment is starkly different than working in a complicated environment.

A complicated environment is predictable. So when a problem occurs you know exactly what to do. And if you’ve been working long enough, you probably have the knowledge required to solve the problem. That’s the work approach we’ve been using for the last decade.

In complexity, however, there is constant surprise. A problem in complexity is always new. It may share characteristics with previous problems, but something about it makes it different than any other problem that has been solved before. So when a problem occurs in a complex environment, no one knows exactly what the solution is, it must be figured out through action. Complexity requires a different approach to work altogether.

That approach is learning while working and more specifically: learning from doing.

It’s learning that can only happen as a result of applying new knowledge in practice. We try a course of action, we learn as a result of that activity, and then figure out what to do next.

In other words: practice.

But it isn’t just practice for the sake of practice, it’s practice for the purpose of pursuing mastery.

I define mastery as doing your job so damn well that other people take notice of your capabilities.

Dan Pink defined it as the desire to get better at something that matters.

“Mastery,” writes management exorcist (his description) Niels Pflaeging, “is the capability to solve new problems.”

And managing new problems in complexity is what you’re going to be doing for the rest of your long and brilliant career.

Taking Control of Your Career

The constant flow of new problems means intentionally getting better at the work you do isn’t just a good professional practice, it’s becoming a necessity.

And contrary to any belief you may have about “being developed,” the only person who can develop you is you.

Coaches, mentors, teachers, peers, bosses, and other social influences can be helpful, to be certain, but their assistance often misses the same essential step to learning that conferences, trainings, books, articles, and most other professional development activities miss, too: putting new knowledge into practice.

Work practice is a way to use all those new knowledge opportunities for what they are: starting points for trying a course of action.

Because to learn or improve a skill, it’s not enough to think it, you have to do it. Often over and over, getting a little better each time. That’s practice. A purposeful, focused, and systematic effort that requires preparation and self-reflection.

Sounds a little like the work you already do, doesn’t it?

Practicing at work gives you an intentional approach to learning from the work while you do the work.

And if you’re already doing the work, why not make it work for you, too?

Work Practice

Pursuing mastery through practice by applying new knowledge in practice is how you consistently learn and improve the skills required to manage new problems in complexity and make change happen in your career, your organization, and the industry.

With Work Practice: Develop a Practice Habit & Take Control of Your Career, you’ll be introduced to a proven system designed and developed to help you practice in the flow of the work you’re already doing.

Through seven lessons, each intended to be completed in under 15 minutes, you’ll learn:

  • Why our growing awareness of complexity and the dynamic work environment it creates demands a constant orientation toward learning
  • The theoretical foundation and practical importance of practice as a professional development activity, and
  • An evidence-based practice process and how to make practice a part of your daily work routine

After completing Work Practice, you’ll be using a purposeful, focused, and systematic approach to improving the professional skills important to you, all by spending a few minutes before doing the work and a few minutes after.

Florida State University professor Anders Ericsson’s research backs up the premise: deliberate practice will make you better at the work you do.

Here’s what he writes in his book Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise, “In pretty much any area of human endeavor, people have tremendous capacity to improve their performance, as long as they train in the right way. If you practice something for a few hundred hours, you will almost certainly see great improvement—but you have only scratched the surface. You can keep going and going and going, getting better and better and better. How much you improve is up to you.”

Does it sound unprofessional? It’s not because it’s required! There isn’t another way to work in complexity, which is discussed in the first lesson sent directly to your inbox following your purchase. Try, Learn, Adapt is all we have. In fact, treating complex problems as if they were complicated problems is only likely to make them worse.

Who could argue with a purposeful, focused, and systematic approach to work that includes preparation and self-reflection, anyway? Not anyone I want to work with.

Work Practice uses existing professional development efforts as the starting points they are, introduces a systematic process for moving off the OK Plateau for the skills we care about, and uses the most important professional development opportunity all of us participate in every hour of our work days: the work itself, all in the effort to improve the skills necessary for making change happen in your career, your organization, and the industry while you work.

Learn more about Work Practice: Develop a Practice Habit and Take Control of Your Career

And why our increasing awareness of it changes everything

My friend Jade has a question she’s become very good at asking when any of us are feeling a little anxious: What is concrete about the situation?

It works because it’s a direct rebuttal to the cause of anxiousness: unease and apprehension about some yet-to-happen matter.

The answer is intended to identify what is within your control about a situation and what isn’t. What isn’t, of course, is often control over some outcome we have a vested interest in. That’s where the anxiety comes from. It’s apprehension over something that lies in the future.

A lack of control over an outcome is not something we’re comfortable with because we’re busy looking at the world linearly: if I do this, this will happen, because of that this will happen, then this will happen, and finally this will happen.

It’s how we work, too.

We sense a problem. We analyze the problem. We solve the problem. That’s how we plan. That’s how we improve. That’s how we manage.

The issue is that we often control the outcome of work problems as much as we do personal problems, which is to say, with actions we take that may influence the outcome toward a direction we desire … and not in ensuring the actual outcome itself.

That’s important! Because when our only option is to influence an outcome as opposed to controlling the outcome, we’re probably making a decision in what can be called a complex environment.

“Most situations and decisions in organizations are complex because some major change—a bad quarter, a shift in management, a merger or acquisition—introduces unpredictability and flux,” write the Cynefin framework’s co-creator Dave Snowden and article co-author Mary Boone.

The Cynefin framework

The Cynefin framework is a useful tool in our effort to better function in a world where our awareness of complexity—if anything, a way of looking at the world—is rapidly increasing.

It prompts us to stop and ask: What is concrete about this situation?

It’s a critical question because, contrary to our decades-long de facto one-size-fits-all decision-making approach, we’re actually making decisions in four different business environments according to the Cynefin framework: simple, complicated, complex, and chaotic.




While that one-size-fits-all decision-making approach is appropriate for some contexts, it can be quite disastrous in others.

Instead, the Cynefin framework theorizes that to successfully address a problem we’re better off first understanding which environment it’s occurring in.

Until then: we’re in a state of disorder, which is not where we want to be yet increasingly where we are, usually with no awareness that different business environments even exist! Every problem looks like every other problem if we’ve only ever recognized one type of problem.

To move out of disorder, represented by the black holish area in the middle of the diagram, we can rely on the Cynefin framework as a sense-making device to help us assess what’s concrete about a problem-to-be-solved situation.

Only when we stop to understand the context of a decision can we determine the best way to proceed.

This, of course, is not how organizations (nor the people making decisions) have been approaching decision making for the last hundred-plus years.

But if we’re going to function in complexity, it’s a must.

Complexity, I’ve found, can be a difficult to succinctly define existence—you know it when you see it—and comparing it to what we already know can be an easy and enlightening introduction to this all-important concept.

What we already know is a many, many, many number of problems at work are being approached as if the outcome can be dictated. This is the approach of: if we do this, then we know this will happen.

The Cynefin framework separates this approach into two related (and different!) domains: simple and complicated. The simple and complicated are familiar because they’re how we’ve been approaching work since we started our first jobs, they’re how we were taught to problem solve, and they’re the example on display in nearly every organization.

The simple environment is characterized by a cause and effect relationship known by everyone. As a rudimentary example, think about driving a car as it begins to get dark—we all know to turn the headlights on and we’re all going to do the same thing every time.

“Simple contexts, properly assessed, require straightforward management and monitoring. Here, leaders sense, categorize, and respond,” write Snowden and Boone. “That is, they assess the facts of the situation, categorize them, and then base their response on established practice.”

Established practice, or the more colloquial best practice, is used for decisions in the simple domain because the outcome can be predicted in advance, everyone is able to recognize the problem, and there is a single right answer.

A complicated environment is one where cause and effect can be understood through analysis, often by an expert, whether that’s us or someone we consult. Here there is at least one right answer, but it isn’t evident to someone without expertise on the topic. This is the domain of sense, analyze, respond.

For example, when the check engine light on your dashboard comes on, you know to take the car to a mechanic (unless you have a fully functioning mechanic-set up at home and the expertise required to recognize and fix the problem). The mechanic then analyzes the car using good practice, potentially one of multiple legitimate ways to address the problem.

In those scenarios, however, where the right answer is proving elusive through analysis, it’s likely the situation is complex, the environment where “much of contemporary business has shifted,” write Snowden and Boone.

They continue, “Leaders who try to impose order in a complex context will fail, but those who set the stage, step back a bit, allow patterns to emerge, and determine which ones are desirable will succeed.”

Complex environments call for ideas. Because cause and effect can’t be understood until after the fact, the domain requires trying solutions in small ways, monitoring effectiveness, and then amplifying or dampening the interventions. Probe, sense, respond.

Traffic during your commute is a good example of complexity. All the cars and trucks on all the roads have an influence on all the other cars and trucks on the roads. Add road construction or an accident and new challenges emerge. Navigating your way to the next destination may require a different route.

At work, complexity is everywhere because humans are a major source of surprise, as are competitors, and regulators, and the economy, etc, etc, etc. Complexity exists because all of these things are interdependent, obviously to different degrees, and interconnected, also to different degrees, so that when something happens it influences the others, sometimes dramatically.

In complexity, there are no right answers, only possibilities, because of the flux and unpredictability. Surprise is a persistent result of action, taken by us or others, which requires even more ideas and more probes.

Our efforts are to identify new, or emergent, ways of doing things because, by definition, the problem we’re solving (actually complex problems can only be managed) has not been experienced before, at least in some subtle way. They’re new and unique.

The last domain, chaotic, is one we’re rarely in and is signaled by no perceivable relationship (at least for the moment) between cause and effect. Here we act, sense, and respond because the action will provide new information for the purposes of moving us into a different domain where we can better manage the situation.

So, yes, the chaotic can become complex. And the complex, complicated. The complicated can transition to simple. And vice-versa every which way. As we’ve established, each domain calls for a different decision-making approach, so the boundaries are for signaling and recognizing when those transitions occur.

Except for the special case of the boundary between simple and chaotic. That’s a cliff. It’s a complacent zone. If you fall off the cliff, now you’ve got a crisis and it can be challenging to recover.

As a result, Snowden and Boone advise, “You should manage in the complicated and complex spaces and only move a very small amount of material down into the simple because that’s actually highly vulnerable to rapid or accelerated change.”

There it is: manage in the complicated and complex environments knowing full-well that more and more of the problems we’re encountering are in the complex domain, where what’s concrete is not the outcome of the intervention, but the influence we hold for approaching the problem.

It’s worth noting one more time: this is a gargantuan shift from how we (and the organizations we work for) have approached problems for the last hundred-plus years.

One more from Snowden and Boone to send us out: “Manage starting conditions and monitor for emergence. Because outcomes are unpredictable in a complex context, leaders need to focus on creating an environment from which good things can emerge, rather than trying to bring about predetermined results and possibly missing opportunities that arise unexpectedly.”

So the next time you’ve identified a problem, ask: What’s concrete about this situation? And if you can’t reliably count on an intervention to be the 100% solution, you’re likely operating in complexity:

Probe. Sense. Respond.

So at work as you encounter problems to be solved, identify them as complicated or complex. Are others approaching solving them in the appropriate way?

Additional Resources