Simple Habits for Complex Times: Powerful Practices for Leaders

Simple Habits for Complex Times: Powerful Practices for Leaders

by Jennifer Garvey Berger, Keith Johnston

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When faced with complex challenges or uncertain outcomes, many leaders believe that if they are smart enough, work hard enough, or turn to the best management tools, they will be able to find the right answer, predict and plan for the future, and break down tasks to produce controllable results. But what are leaders to do when this isn't the case?

Rather than offering one-size-fits-all tips and tricks drawn from the realm of business as usual, Simple Habits for Complex Times provides three integral practices that enable leaders to navigate the unknown. By taking multiple perspectives, asking different questions, and seeing more of their system, leaders can better understand themselves, their roles, and the world around them. They can become more nimble, respond with agility, and guide their organizations to thrive in an ever-shifting business landscape. The more leaders use these simple habits, the more they enhance their performance and solve increasingly common, sticky business issues with greater acumen.

Whether in large or small organizations, in government or the private sector, in the U.S. or overseas, leaders will turn to this book as a companion that helps them grow into the best version of themselves.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780804799430
Publisher: Stanford University Press
Publication date: 03/01/2016
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 272
Sales rank: 422,182
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Jennifer Garvey Berger and Keith Johnston are founding partners of Cultivating Leadership, a global leadership consultancy. Jennifer is the author of Changing on the Job (Stanford, 2011). Keith is the former Global Chair of Oxfam International. Follow them on

Read an Excerpt

Simple Habits for Complex Times

Powerful Practices for Leaders

By Jennifer Garvey Berger, Keith Johnston


Copyright © 2015 Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8047-9425-1



"Damn!" Yolanda Murphy, director of the statewide Family and Children's Services (FACS) Division, slammed her fist on the keyboard, inadvertently closing the email window she had just been reading. In her first 18 months on the job, Yolanda felt she must have seen more tragedy and mayhem than the previous director had seen in his seven years in the role, a notion never omitted in front-page news stories about the miserable series of misfortunes that still seemed to be unfolding.

Now that she was 56 years old, this was supposed to be the apex of her career—her first stint as a chief executive. While many applauded her as a no-nonsense, competent manager who knew the agency and the state government, some had thought that she lacked the frontline social work experience to do the job well. But not even a career social worker could have anticipated all of these different pieces breaking down, she thought. Six children dead and four hospitalized in 18 months, children that FACS was following, was supposed to be protecting. And here, today, another case of abuse from a foster family.

"Jamie!" she called. "Will you bring me whatever the review has got so far on the Proucheford office? And will you get Doug in here?" She ran her fingers through her hair and pushed away from the desk. She walked to the window, looking hard into the city as though the answers to her questions were somehow out there, as though she could save children at risk if she just stared hard enough.

"This is about the kid in the Proucheford County Hospital, isn't it?" Doug, Yolanda's next-in-line, had come in without her hearing him. She turned and nodded. Sitting and shuffling through a set of papers, Doug looked as terrible as Yolanda felt. Doug had been with FACS for 20 years and knew the system inside and out. A career social worker, Doug had moved up the ladder to the No. 2 position and until he wasn't willing to be promoted any higher. Before Yolanda took the position, some had told her that Doug liked the No. 2 spot because there was power without visibility, but none of that rang true for Yolanda once she met him. And none of them in FACS could avoid visibility now, with their names trending locally on Twitter and on the front pages and editorial pages of every newspaper in the state.

Doug was coordinating the several investigations to figure out where the fault was in the system, and he had gathered thousands of pieces of data and found no clear conclusions, no smoking gun. Many of those pages of paper were organized into a series of neat files now in a thick stack on Yolanda's desk. He found the paper he was searching for and began to read aloud. "Ten year old kid, lived with this foster family for eight months. History of starting fires, last one burnt down the foster house where he was last placed. Current foster family on probation because of reports—never proven—of abuse of a kid in their care 18 months ago. This kid was the first placement during the probation, and he was placed there after six—no, seven—families turned him down as being too dangerous to placed with them. Got in a fight the day before yesterday with his foster mother's boyfriend and got beat up, head trauma, broken leg, a wide variety of bruises." Doug pushed a picture of a little boy in a hospital room across the table.

"What the hell is going on, Doug?" she asked, staring into the little boy's vacant eyes. "Why am I looking at another picture of a kid hurt while we were supposed to be protecting him? We've got more reviews running than we've ever had before, more people are looking under rocks than we've ever had, and we're still placing kids with foster parents who we suspect of beating other children? Is this a failure of a couple of links of the chain, or is this a failure of the whole damn organization? And who do I have to fire or promote or train up in order for this to stop?"

Doug, holding a close-up of a series of bruises on a child's back, said, "I would give anything to know the answer to that question. I have been through these documents a thousand times and ..." His sentence was interrupted by Jamie, who had walked into the office, pink message slips in hand.

"Yolanda, you've got calls from the regular local press—but also there's someone from the New York Times who wants to talk with you."

"Tell them we're investigating and there will be a press conference at"—she looked at her watch and then at Doug—"three o'clock." Doug nodded. Yolanda sat down at the table and began to page through the largest file marked "Proucheford." "So, Doug, we have three and a half hours to figure out what's wrong—and how to fix it."

* * *


A leader, reflecting on the growing needs for a new way of being, offered his ideas about the leadership challenge he—and his people generally—faced. He explained to his stakeholders:

The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate for the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew and act anew.

You've probably faced a situation that made you think something like this, too—as Yolanda and Doug are thinking of their terrible situation. No matter how good leaders are, they find themselves dealing with problems—and opportunities—more difficult or complex than anything they've known before. Superb leaders have long known that they need to find ways to "think anew and act anew," especially as their plates become "piled high with difficulty." This challenge to think in new ways about a novel situation has been with leaders always, and each time, they have pushed at the edges of what we know in order to grow more capable of handling the challenges that seem impossible. Abraham Lincoln was speaking to more than just to the US Congress about the "quiet past" and the "stormy present" in 1862. The truth is that leadership requires ways of thinking anew no matter what era you're in; it's probably true that the first Neolithic leaders were pushed to the edges of their capacities as farming and stone tools created conflict and opportunities for their people. Leadership by its very definition is about taking people and ideas to new places.

The problem for leaders today is that as the world changes so quickly, the future becomes far less predictable, the options become exponentially increased, and the way we need to think about those options shifts. Imagine if Lincoln had had to tweet about his plans (and his breakfast) as well as being Facebook friends with the senators on both sides of the aisle. Lincoln needed to make decisions with small amounts of aging information, a hard thing to do. Leaders today need to make decisions with endless amounts of emerging information, which might be even harder; it is certainly more complex, and it makes our need to "think anew" different from what it's ever been before.

This is the rise of VUCA: volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity. You can hardly open a leadership book without this discussion, so we'll speed by it (increasing the speed of change even in talking about the speed of change). We know that even though we generally live longer and in greater safety and have much more stuff than our parents and their parents, people and ideas and organizations are also more complex because there is much more information available and things are much more interconnected. We know it's more uncertain because as those variables intersect, new possibilities get created. These are possibilities no one ever thought about in advance: they just emerged from the current context as one new idea bashed against another new idea (or against an ancient one). You also know that those interconnections—of ideas, of people, of conflict and congruence—are more likely because there are so many more of us around. There are billions of us: more than twice as many people now than there were in the mid-1960s, and at least those people in the developed world consume vastly more resources. This increases our volatility at a global scale because now our planet is having to do things it has never done before, and there is no possible way to predict what happens next. It is also the case that many of the issues we face in society, such as climate change, will affect communities over a very long term in unpredictable ways, even as organizations and news outlets still seem captured by the very short term, preferring black and white to ambiguous gray.

Our awareness of the fact that the world is changing irrevocably also puts pressure on the way we think about the present and the future. Serfs in the 1600s probably had something like a "Kids these days!" expression, but they didn't look at their children and wonder what they would be when they grew up; even 50 years ago, there weren't that many choices. One of our clients recounted her deep frustration in high school when her teacher asked whether she wanted to be a nurse, a teacher, or a secretary. "I was so frustrated to have only three options—none interesting to me," she told us. Less than 40 years later, Jennifer's then 14-year-old daughter, Naomi, came home frustrated because the teacher told her that the job Naomi would do when she grew up had probably not been invented yet. "What does she expect me to do about that?" Naomi asked. "How can I prepare for something that doesn't exist?" Indeed. This might in fact be the key leadership question of our time.

Abraham Lincoln faced a world of rising volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and change. And so did Franklin Delano Roosevelt. And so did Keith's grandfather as he was making the decision to leave his home and travel around the world to New Zealand to begin a new life. So it would be easy to say that this is just part of the human condition and move on from there. In our work with leaders around the world and our work leading global initiatives ourselves, though, we've been convinced that the thing that is happening in the world now is unlike any other time that humans have ever faced before, and we've been convinced that the rules for leaders are different now. And there's no handbook about how the rules have changed or how you need to change to meet these new requirements. We're trying to change that with this book, which while not a handbook, is a kind of a guidebook to this new land and to the strange way things work here.

Here's one of the most unsettling and distinctive features of this new land: it operates from a different set of choices, and because it is more untethered from the constraints of the past, it lives more in the set of options about what is possible rather than the set of options about what is probable. This sounds like an easy change that might be on a motivational poster: FOCUS ON THE POSSIBLE! It actually requires more than just attitude, though. A focus on the possible requires changes in the way we think, engage with others, and take action. Moving away from our own belief in a predictable world is a major effort indeed.

See, our minds love categorizing and learning from the past in order to keep us safe into the future. And that has been great for us. Without this capacity to predict and determine risks, we'd be just a stunted branch on the evolutionary tree. We carry with us a kind of a bell curve of possibilities, and depending on our background and knowledge (and, unfortunately, on what we ate for breakfast and which magazine headlines we happened to see as we waited in line at the grocery store), we are constantly making decisions about risk and reward. That internal judging system has done pretty well to protect and keep us for tens of thousands of years, but it's beginning to short out now. And one of the key ways our system misfires is as it considers the difference between the probable and the possible.

Let's take a few examples. We tend to make decisions based on what we think is most probable. In this way, our brains are like the actuary tables—judging the future by what we've seen happen in the past. We add new kitchens if we think it's probable that the new kitchen will increase the value of the house in five years when we sell it, or we do a wilder, more idiosyncratic renovation if we think it's probable that we'll stay in this house for decades into the future. We choose Aruba as our holiday destination from among the ones we think are most probable to make us happy (based on the criteria we've decided is best for us). We choose "be more customer centered" as a strategy for our division at work when we think it's probable that the old strategy constrains our growth and effectiveness and this new one is the most enabling of the future we want to create.

What we don't notice is that because we are using the past as a kind of measure of what's likely, we have sharply constrained the set of possibilities when we made our decisions. We didn't consider whether an earthquake would roll through our house, making our new kitchen (and indeed, the neighborhood) less attractive to potential buyers. We picked Aruba because it was so much more off the beaten path than Jamaica, but still we've had friends that have gone there. We didn't select Réunion in the Indian Ocean, because we'd never heard of it—it was possible but not probable. We choose the customer-focused strategy out of the ones that were relatively familiar to us because we can see the problem (we're too internal) and being more customer centered looks like the best way to solve it. It might be that our internal focus is a symptom of some entirely different problem (our remuneration system creates perverse incentives for us to manage internal politics rather than customer relationships), but we picked from what looked like the most probable a cause to us (or the probable cause that was most attractive to us). As you read, you might be thinking that it would take all of your time and be paralyzing if you had to think about earthquakes and every tropical island in the entire world. You would never renovate anything, never lie on a white-sand beach again. We agree that these would be bad outcomes, and we're not suggesting that at all. You can carry on planning your holidays and your renovations as before, because the rise in complexity and holiday options is less material than the rise in options leaders need to consider in their work. If you choose an island that isn't as perfect as it possibly could have been, the difference is mostly irrelevant because you'll have a good time anyway (even if the sand is whiter, the water warmer, and the fish more beautiful somewhere else). But if you put your eggs in the "customer-centric" basket when really the thing that's about to change your industry is the new phone app that replaces you, the change is very material after all. Part of the battle is knowing when to let the rise in VUCA change the way you work and when to just simplify things. We'll help with that distinction as we go.

The future has always been unknown—the serf in the 1600s didn't know, Lincoln didn't know, your parents didn't know. As Marshall McLuhan said, "We drive into the future using only our rear view mirror." Because there's no way of knowing what's next (that's the uncertainty and volatility part), we are always walking forward with our hands out in the dark, waiting to bump in to things. And because things are changing, we have lost much of the ability to predict what will happen next from what has happened before, to pull out the memories from other dark rooms we have bumped through in the past. Complexity is about getting our heads around what is possible (because anything could happen) rather than what is probably going to happen (which is determined from what has happened before).

This shift—from trying to get your head around what is most likely to trying to get your head around what is in the field of possibilities—is much bigger than it sounds. As research has shown in study after study, our brains just don't like this. Our general pattern is to prune and simplify. We need to work at it if we are going to create new patterns of behavior for thinking and acting in this new world. We need to talk to one another differently, gather information differently, build strategies and plans for the future in new ways. We need new habits of mind that stretch and expand us to deal in more thoughtful ways with the complexity the world offers.


All the leaders with whom we have worked have had some seriously impressive qualities. They are a smart bunch with good analytical facility and clear-mindedness. They are able to take apart problems and come up with solutions, quite quickly and often when the data are still emerging. They have been very good at the core business they are managing, whatever that might be. They have natural skills, and because both organizations and individuals know the power of continuous learning, many of them have been to additional schooling and/or have had coaching to help them get even better at the leadership tasks they face. And nearly all of them, when we finally put away all the barriers, admit that they are stressed and overwhelmed and concerned they're not up to the task. They are overwhelmed by their email, by their growing and diverse stakeholders, by the impossible demands on their time, by the increasing scale and scope of the challenges they face. They do not all have a language about volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity, but they all have a felt reaction to it.


Excerpted from Simple Habits for Complex Times by Jennifer Garvey Berger, Keith Johnston. Copyright © 2015 Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University. Excerpted by permission of STANFORD UNIVERSITY PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Contents and Abstracts

1Leading the possible
chapter abstract

This chapter introduces what the authors mean about complexity, volatility, ambiguity and uncertainty (VUCA) that seem to be growing in workplaces and families. The chapter begins to explore the three habits of mind that frame the development of the ideas through the other chapters. These habits for leaders are asking different questions, taking multiple perspectives, and seeing more of the system.

2Engage With Complexity, But Keep It Simple
chapter abstract

This chapter describes how leading in complex situations requires different approaches than leading in more knowable contexts based on the use of the Cynefin framework. The chapter points to the welter of demands on leaders to simplify to focus on what is most important, to measure progress, and report on performance. Unfortunately, methods to simplify and focus are effective when the situation is known or a right answer can be figured out, but in complex situations, there are too many interconnected variables to be able to predict what might happen and so quite different methods are needed to lead effectively. The chapter demonstrates leadership approaches needed in complexity, including setting a clear direction and boundaries for the organization or project and then conducting safe-to-fail experiments to learn the inclinations of the system and discover what works and what does not.

3Say What You Think, Listening for the Ways You Might Be Wrong
chapter abstract

This chapter argues some of the most profound changes leaders can make to ways they lead are based on how they engage with people and how they change their thinking about this. Leaders are rewarded for being good problem solvers and thus coming to difficult conversations or running meetings, assuming that other people have problems or are problems that they need to solve. This chapter offer a new mindset of seeing others as people who make sense of the world differently and from whom the leader could learn useful insights and gain a bigger view of the situation. This sensemaker mindset radically changes how leaders lead. The chapter sets out a simple model for leaders to follow: giving clear data, separating out feelings and interpretation, and being genuinely curious and actively listening to the ways other people are making sense of things.

4Create A Clear Vision For An Unclear Future
chapter abstract

5Make Rational Use Of Human Irrationality
chapter abstract

This chapter applies the insights of derived recent decades from behavioral economics about the mix of rationality and emotion that is at play in the ways humans perceive things and make decisions and how this shapes us as leaders. The authors identify common biases and mindsets leaders need to be aware of and how they might use this awareness to increase their effectiveness. Biases highlighted include thinking we are considering all the data, but seeing only data that supports what we already believe or have already decided; thinking we consider the future carefully, but being captured by the past (or superimposing the past on what we say the future will look like); and how thinking we see the world and our colleagues clearly, but really mostly judging by using our somewhat paranoid sense of the intentions we project on them.

6Communicate Your Certainty About Uncertainty
chapter abstract

Theories of effective communications assume crisp clear consistent messages repeated on many occasions and leaders actually discover crispness, clarity, and consistency are in short supply when the situation is complex. Leaders in complex situations need to have different sorts of conversations from the very beginning. The chapter describes a non-linear process of communication and the factors leaders need to pay attention to. These include setting the conditions for the initial direction and the initial boundaries, communicating a mindset about the direction and boundaries; Engaging emotions as well as logic and using stories and metaphors; attaching these ideas to things that have worked in the past; changing the messages as you learn, and listening well to enable feedback.

7Grow Your People To Be Bigger Than Your Problems
chapter abstract

This chapter applies the ideas of adult development to how leaders might build organizations better equipped to work in conditions of volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity. This depends on beginning with a mindset that people can grow and understand the world differently. From that basis, adult development theories can provide a growth framework for understanding how different adults may make sense of these challenges and how to change organizational practices to have work be a place where people are able to grow their capabilities. The chapter also provides examples of a number of organizational policies or values that are intended to do good things and also, perversely, may constrain people's development in the workplace. These include commitments such as hiring the smartest people, holding people accountable for results, using competition to sharpen people's performance, and always treating people the same.

8Lead Change as the New Normal
chapter abstract

This chapter presents a change model for leaders working in complex adaptive situations. The authors make the point that the ways leaders are required to be different during times of uncertainty and complexity are the same ways leaders can intentionally use to create a change in their organization (also a time of complexity and uncertainty). The core elements of this model are: Determining what's predictable and what's not, and leaning in to the unpredictable settings; creating a feedback rich organization to support constant learning; choosing direction and building guardrails; examine the present situation and looking for the current patterns of attraction; experimentingand learning; communicating clearly in uncertain times; and, all the while, developing a growth mindset in yourself and others.

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