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.

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