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In the sky, all snowflakes are alike: On managing complexity

Up in the clouds, where all snowflakes start as water droplets forming around tiny particles, they are more or less the same. But as they travel through the atmosphere, influenced by wind and weather, they each develop in their own way into delicate ice crystals. And down on the ground, they can turn into a snowball, a snowman, an avalanche - or just slush fouling up the roadway. Their lives start the same, but they develop and end up entirely differently, uniquely and unpredictably.

...but here on Earth, they are each entirely their own

The same goes for the tasks we typically deal with in complex work. Tasks may appear similar on the surface, but as we dive in, they can turn out to be completely different. Both in terms of what it takes to solve them and how the result will be appreciated when we make it available to those we serve.

For example, when I attempt to share my thoughts in a blog post like this.

Sometimes the "muse" is with me, so thoughts flow easily through my fingers, and I'm done in one go. Other times, I must go through countless revisions and reviews before I can express myself reasonably clearly. And regardless of the effort, it's completely unpredictable how the post will be received. Sometimes there's great interest and a desire for discussion, other times it seems like I'm speaking into the void.

Value lies in the unpredictability

This is one of the ways in which work in complexity significantly differs from industry, where the concept of flow originated. The whole point of mass production is that each item is more or less the same, and contributes to a final product whose selling price we know quite precisely in advance.

And there are more differences.

Not only is the value of each task in complex work unpredictable: it's often precisely in the unpredictability that the greatest potential for value lies. For example, if I were to soon re-publish an exact copy of this post, there probably wouldn't be much interest in it. But if I come up with an idea for an interesting new angle on flow, there's at least a chance it will resonate.

A resurgence of humanism in leadership

This reality challenges us to rethink many of the management understandings and practices we have inherited from industrialism.

One of the things we've been practicing in the technical world in recent years is shifting our focus for control and regulation away from the details of uncontrollable tasks, and their equally uncontrollable results, to the control and regulation of the frameworks within which tasks are performed. We maintain collaborative structures that systematize helpful activities and conversations, and we execute them in predictable rhythms that are disconnected from the random content, progress, and reception of each individual task. We seek to create a stable rhythm in the organization - a "heartbeat" - that fosters ongoing conversations and the thoughtfulness needed when it's not immediately clear what is best to do, or how.

Another thing we've been practicing is shifting the focus of our conversations about tasks from their details to what we hope to achieve by performing them. That is, keeping an eye on and understanding the effect we aim to achieve as a result of task completion.

For example, when a workgroup meets with their stakeholders to plan the upcoming period's work together, it's often useful to ensure a sufficient shared understanding of the specific tasks we intend to undertake. But it's even more important to create coordinated clarity about which results of this work we are particularly aiming to achieve. Because then we can empower people to use their skills and up-to-date knowledge to adjust course toward realizing these results.

A third thing we've been practicing is working with trial actions and taking our experiences from these seriously. If the appreciation of our contributions by our recipients is unpredictable, we must consider each new effort as a kind of "hypothesis" whose real value we can only know in hindsight. And, therefore, we must take an active interest in how our contributions are received, organize experience gathering around these insights, and create a culture that rewards trial actions - even when they disappoint.

A final and perhaps more fundamental thing we've been practicing is putting self-organization and interpersonal relationship building at the center of our leadership. Although we are probably also dependent on material resources, the "machinery" matters less when we face the unpredictability of tasks on a daily basis. In the face of uncertainty, it's more important that we engage with each other and collectively seek the right path, often across traditional boundaries between skills and structures.

We could perhaps summarize all this as a "resurgence of humanism" in leadership.


So maybe it's relevant to ask yourselves:

  • How can you best develop your leadership role as "architects of the environment" who "look up" from individual tasks and focus more on maintaining ways of working with a "heartbeat" that allows for thoughtful consideration of options and activities?

  • How do you ensure the right balance between discussing the details of tasks versus coordinating the understanding of the outcomes you hope to achieve - so you can empower people to find the best way?

  • How can you develop the right frameworks for trial actions and ensure systematic experience gathering that appreciates all types of experiences equally?

  • What can you do to strengthen relationships and bridge gaps that limit flow, resilience, and engagement?

In other words, how can you develop your leadership so that the organization can benefit from the potential of tasks to become uniquely valuable snowflakes - before they melt away?

Ulrik H. Gade

Follow me on LinkedIn - questions and comments are very welcome Want to know more? Check out our workshops, talks and action learning programmes on flow-based leadership. 


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