Complexity, Change, Resilience

Management is about coping with complexity. Leadership, by contrast, is about coping with change.

~John Kotter, What Leaders Really Do

John Kotter wrote one of the most influential business articles of all time, and the key observation is that quote, which differentiates the roles of management and leadership, relegating managers to tackling complexity, while true leaders are responsible for helping the organization grapple with change.

Since he wrote that article in 2001, the rate of change has accelerated, and the role of leadership has become even more important, 22 years later. But it’s unclear if leaders are keeping pace with that challenge. How would we know?

In What It Takes to Lead Through an Era of Exponential Change, Aneel Chima and Ron Gutman present findings from their research into well-known change leaders:

Human minds evolved for thinking linearly and locally in the face of challenge, not exponentially and systemically. Noted futurist Ray Kurzweil asserted, “The future is widely misunderstood. Our forebears expected it to be pretty much like their present, which had been pretty much like their past.” But, projecting our pasts onto our futures exposes a fundamental error: Linear thinking can never catch-up and adapt to the perpetual, pervasive, and exponential change occurring around us — it’s simply too fast and too complex.

Have we reached a limit to our adaptability in the face of such rapid change? Add to that question the reality that many people — even business leaders — are psychologically motivated to avoid change, and to deny the need to change. And bureaucratic organizations have developed deep cultural aversion to change. As Gary Hamel wrote in Bureaucracy Must Die,

You can’t endorse a top-down authority structure and be serious about enhancing adaptability, innovation, or engagement.

The modern desire for resilience is a direct response to the growing complexity of our economy and society, and the need for organizations to cope with change.

Try for free

Hamel, with collaborator Liisa Välikangas, proposes that organizations require strategic resilience, which goes beyond coping with the need for change:

Strategic resilience is not about responding to a one-time crisis or rebounding from a setback. It’s about continually anticipating and adjusting to deep, secular trends that can permanently impair the earning power of a core business. It’s about having the capacity to change even before the case for change becomes obvious. To thrive in turbulent times, companies must become as efficient at renewal as they are at producing today’s products and services.

To achieve strategic resilience, companies will have to overcome the cognitive challenge of eliminating denial, nostalgia, and arrogance; the strategic challenge of learning how to create a wealth of small tactical experiments; the political challenge of reallocating financial and human resources to where they can earn the best returns; and the ideological challenge of learning that strategic renewal is as important as optimization.

Again, we learn that learning — through ‘small tactical experiments’ and other forms of renewal — is central to our gaining a deep resilience, one integral to our work culture. We need to develop ‘the capacity to change even before the case for change becomes obvious’.

So, one of the most important jobs for leaders is developing the capacity for deep resilience, not just in themselves, but to drive a culture of learning with many experiments bubbling at all times, so that the path forward can be grown by renewal, by curiosity, and by innovation.

The only cure for accelerating change, it seems,  is to accelerate the curves of learning, and through that to accelerate resilience. We’ll have to leave linear stopgaps behind to get there.

Facebook iconTwitter IconLinkedIn icon