Expert Coaching. Practical Resources.

November 25, 2021

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Rose Mercier

Embracing Complexity

I am reading an interesting book1 about leading in times of crisis and change. While its messages are directed in large part to individual leaders, there are many lessons in it for governing boards. After all, effective boards are leading organizations where change is a constant and crises are not unknown.

Organizations are complex and operate within complex contexts. Most boards we work with recognize that the organizations which they govern have many interconnected parts that are continuously interacting. We want boards to embrace the position that leading effectively means developing a capacity for strategic foresight2 – to better understand the inside and outside forces that might impact the moving parts of their organization. An appreciation for possible future scenarios helps boards develop insights about how their organizations can continue to be relevant into the future,, thus helping them craft wise strategic direction.

Boards engaged in this work – even many that aren’t – realize that their organizations exist within contexts affected by many interconnected forces that are also continuously interacting. The real ‘a-ha’ in the latter realization is that a board is not always aware of the moving pieces outside of the organization, nor how they might be interconnected, nor how those parts might interact with the moving parts of the organization with which they are more familiar. And that is the marvel of complexity, a marvel that boards must embrace.

One insight about complexity in the book caught my attention: It is important for leaders to develop a big picture view of the system in which the organization operates and an understanding of the various individual forces operating within the system. How might a board do this?

A simple guideline for the board is to set out intentionally to know what it can. We encourage boards to schedule regular board education sessions that introduce or deepen their knowledge about anything that can affect the organization’s future, its ability to achieve its Ends policies or future operational risks. Using the authors’ categories for developing knowledge could be an interesting guide for planning board education:

  • What you know you know: for example, the need or legislated mandate for your organization.
  • What you need to learn more about: For example, the growing reliance on data, the need for cybersecurity and insurance against loss, theft or damage of data. Being more knowledgeable translates into a sounder Executive Limitation for asset protection.
  • What you don’t know about yet: It is helpful to seek sources that publish future trends to discover areas that your board wants to learn more about as it builds its big picture view. A favourite of mine is the annual Ford Trend Report which provides a graphic report of trends affecting society. There are others – “Global Trends 2035” published by the National Intelligence Council, World Economic Forum’s recently published 16th edition of the “Global Risks Report,” to name only two.
  • What I call the Donald Rumsfeld category – the unknown unknowns. This is the real work of strategic foresight: imagining how forces might interact in the future to impact the organization you are governing. This is not about predicting what might happen; it’s about imagining plausible futures based on thoughtful deliberation of your learnings.

Organizations are complex and operate within complex contexts. An intentional board education plan can help your board develop holistic and detailed pictures of the complexity in which it is governing. This type of leadership is essential in today’s organizations. Your board can’t possibly know with certainty what it’s going to happen in the future, but it can craft more informed future directions by embracing complexity.

If your board is looking to understand how to make more sense of the complexity in which you are governing or to develop plausible futures on which to base sound strategic direction, we would be happy to share our experience and expertise.


1 You’re It: Crisis, Change, and How to Lead When it Matters Most. Leonard J. Marcus, Eric J. McNulty, Joseph M. Henderson, Barry C. Dorn. (Hachette Board Group, 2021)

2The capacity – personal, group and societal –to make and live by strategic commitments in the present that are wise and context-sensitive enough to survive context change and co-create a more desirable future” – Ruben Nelson in 2015 presentation to The Governance Coach.

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