The complex challenges we face are growing faster than our capacity to address them. We easily feel overloaded and uncertain about the best path forward. A debilitating level of stress leads to not only exhaustion but also unproductive conflicts as we try to work with others who are equally overwhelmed.
One typical response to overload and confusion is to do more because we assume that more effort will lead to better results. Another is to work even faster so we can move on to the next task more quickly. However, neither one of these increases our effectiveness or efficiency. Doing more works only to a point, beyond which we make more mistakes and become even less productive. Working faster also tends to lead to poor quality results and more time spent reworking our initial efforts. Additionally, the pressure to work more quickly motivates us to work on our own to save time. However, working alone creates incomplete and incompatible solutions that require even more time working with others to resolve.
By contrast systems thinking encourages us to think in terms of leverage. Look for a few key coordinated changes we can make over time that have the biggest and most sustainable impact. Leverage points are powerful but often not obvious.
The following guidelines help us create leverage at three levels of system. We can find leverage in our self as a leader, our organization, and the larger system we seek to impact. These levels are interconnected. We need to begin with our self because this is the level where we have the greatest control. We begin by observing and questioning our own intentions, thinking, and behavior. As a result of finding leverage in our self, we can become a more effective organizational leader. More effective organizations in turn take better advantage of the levers that lie in the larger system we seek to affect.
Energize through Meaningful Direction
We live in an increasingly chaotic and rapidly changing world. It has been characterized as VUCA: volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous. VUCA world can lead us to be continually reactive instead of creative. In trying to just keep our heads above water, we often lose sight of the shore we want to reach. Therefore, it is important to keep reminding ourselves of what we care about most deeply – first individually and then collectively by identifying the needs and aspirations we share with others. This can be in the form of timeless values, an inspiring sense of purpose or mission, a clear vision of a desired state, or even a potentially undesirable eventuality that we need to prepare for. Being in touch with what matters most gives us the energy and resolve we need to keep going when things get difficult, as they inevitably will.
Embrace Reality However Difficult
We are where we are whether we like it or not. Knowing where we are establishes the forces – both positive and negative – we have to work with in order to move to where we want to be. Critical elements of the current state are: 1) how we think about things (our mental models, beliefs, or assumptions), 2) the unintended as well as intended consequences of our actions, and 3) our willingness to take responsibility for the problems we experience as well as the solutions we believe in.
Our thinking is a powerful lever that shapes the reality we see and hence the actions we decide to take. Understanding that our behavior can have unintended consequences guides us to make better use of limited resources. Acknowledging how we contribute, albeit unintentionally, to the reality we experience empowers us to assert greater control. We learn to focus first on the problems caused by our own intentions, thinking, and behavior.
Clarifying current reality is a collective effort in that all of us are limited in what we can see. Whether we need feedback about our own blind spots or to better understand our impacts on an organization or larger system, working with others to gain a clearer picture of reality is very important.
Think Long-Term; Act Short-Term
Moving in a meaningful direction requires us to think long-term by creating long-term goals and an initial strategy to get there. At the same time we need to demonstrate short-term successes that build momentum towards long-term results. The trick is to distinguish real short-term successes from quick easy fixes.
Quick fixes are attractive because they tend to be obvious and show fast results. However, quick fixes often make matters worse by creating longer term negative consequences that exacerbate problem symptoms and divert necessary attention and resources away from fundamental, lasting solutions.
By contrast, genuine short-term successes that result in significant and sustainable improvements over time are often less popular. They require up-front investments in new relationships, insights, capacities, and ways of working. These investments build a solid foundation for meaningful long-term results. It is equally valuable to cultivate patience and persistence in order to get lasting returns on these investments.
The immediate benefits of quick fixes and our bias for action lead us to diminish the importance of reflection. However, the VUCA nature of our world demands that we treat short-term actions as experiments, absorb new information, and learn what is being called for now.
Reflection is as important as action. Humility and curiosity are the keys to valuing reflection. To reflect and gain new perspective, we first need to take a step back instead of lean in harder. Stepping back involves giving ourselves sufficient time for rest and renewal, to “not just do something but stand there”. Only then can we recover the capacity to think clearly, the wisdom to distinguish temporary gains from genuine progress, and the strength to change course where necessary.
When working collectively, and especially across organizations and sectors, learning continuously further requires us to develop shared measures, data, and communications. It is also important to establish a backbone group or organization whose primary responsibilities are to coordinate resources and implementation among the diverse stakeholders involved.
High-leverage leaders energize through meaningful direction, embrace reality however difficult, think long-term while acting short-term, and learn continuously from experiments and changing conditions. You can use these principles to find leverage in yourself, your organization, and the larger system you want to improve.