Do you know how to dance with complexity?

During the first week of August, all of us birds got out of our garage in Valby, Copenhagen, for three nights of sleeping in tents and dancing with complexity under a partly sunny, partly cloudy, and partly heavy raining sky in Southern Funen, Denmark. Complexity is both; an interesting and inspiring but often challenging dancing partner – as all fun dancing partners tend to be.  

So why Southern Funen? And why all that dancing?  

Well, after having the garage closed for a well-deserved summer break, we participated in the annual Implement Summer University. Since 2021, we have been part of Implement Consulting Group, a Danish-born, globally operating, management consulting firm, giving us +1000 new, smart, and curious colleagues, a lot of collaborations, and, we believe, a lot of extra value to our clients.  

The setup for the Implement Summer University always contains three days of inspiring talks, workshops, and conversations. This year’s theme was right down the IS IT A BIRD alley: How to dance with complexity, dilemmas, and paradoxes?  

Consider this paradox, for example: Should we prioritise profit or purpose? Should we go for the money or for doing what is right for people and the planet?  

Or how about this one: Should we spend time and money to really understand the problem we are trying to solve? Being explorative, searching for new understandings, opening up for new insights? Or should we just get going in solving the problem? Enough talking. Start building, creating, getting on with it.  

Sounds familiar?  

Dancing with complexity calls for taking a step back

These and other paradoxes have always been hard to navigate. But in this volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous, short VUCA World, in which it is not at all certain that old ways will open neither old nor new doors, and where we cannot rely on existing processes and routines, it is even harder for both, businesses and people.  

According to Zafer Achi, who was one of the speakers at Summer University and gave his talk while the rain was pouring down outside the main stage tent, complexity demands that you give yourself time to be explorative. To choose a side in the paradox of understanding or solving, by investing time and energy in understanding the problem.  

One could say, that in dancing with complexity, the first dance step you need to learn, is a step back. Look at your assumptions and hypotheses, re-evaluate them, challenge them, and explore the problem with new eyes, even though your gut tells you to go for the routines. Look and listen to learn, not to win, or to fix.  

And when you have listened to learn, you should also act. Not because you now know the solution, but because by acting, while still being open to understanding, you start moving instead of being paralyzed by the complexity. And because by moving, you begin to explore the reactions to your actions, you identify patterns, learn and adjust, while being constantly aware that there is no right solution, only decisions and actions that might or might not take you in your desired direction.  

And there you have it: What Safer was telling us, were some of the same things that are present in the good ol’ Design Thinking mindset: Explore and understand, prototype and test. Learn. That sounds like a good recipe to navigate this complex world.  

But Safer not only gave advice on how to dance with complexity. He also gave good advice on when to skip the understanding and just start solving.  

Being inspired by David Snowden’s Cynefine Framework, he divided the world into four domains: the ‘Obvious’, the ‘Complicated’, the ‘Complex’, and the ‘Chaotic’. And yes, if a problem is in the ‘Complex’ domain, you need to approach it by listening to learn and taking that step back. But if a problem is in the ‘Complicated’, or even the ‘Obvious’ domain, you can depend on your routines, your expertise, your assumptions, and, most probably, predict what will happen. In that way, the framework is a way to decide what decision-making approach is most appropriate, depending on the level of knowledge and predictability of a given problem.  

The bad surprises arise if we fail to categorize a problem as complex when it actually is. Instead, we see it as complicated or obvious and act according to that. This could point towards a few interesting questions: How much energy do you spend examining whether the problem in front of you is complex or just complicated? How often do you go for your preferred solution, based on your assumptions? How often do you listen to learn instead of listening to win or fix?  

Can a trip to the balcony make us even better dancers?

In another talk, some of our smart Implement colleagues encouraged us to think about paradoxes in both/and terms, where instead of choosing between A or B, we find a way to balance both. Keeping our eyes open to walking the fine line between both, being constantly aware of the danger of moving too far in one direction, or even finding the "Mule" between A and B, where a new C is created. This view on paradoxes is greatly inspired by Wendy Smith’s Both/And Thinking and Roger Martins' Integrative Thinking.  

So, what if we changed the questions from profit or purpose, understanding or solving, to: How might we develop a sustainable strategy that maximizes short-term profit while also having a positive impact on people and the planet? And how might we spend time and energy understanding the problem while also moving fast enough towards developing and implementing solutions?  

It is almost provokingly simple. Yet it is a way to find energy instead of paralysis in some of those difficult dilemmas and paradoxes that we all are presented with again and again. And as our colleagues on stage said: Finding the pathway to that both/and is easier if we from time to time get on the balcony instead of staying on the dancefloor. If we allow us to stand there for a few minutes, where it is s easier to see how our Complexity Partner is dancing down there. Where we can catch our breath before we jump back into it.  

Let’s dance

Being home from Funen in our garage, we feel full of breath and ready to be on the forefront of humanising business, by both identifying the right problem to solve and solving the problem right.  By helping our clients find new ways of both making a profit and creating purposeful and meaningful change for people and the planet.  

Let’s dance.