Managing "complex" environments (a new take on the old Cynefin model)

I recently heard a talk on managing complexity which made good use of the Cynefin model (pronounced Kin-eh-vin) originally developed by Dave Snowden. I'm told that Dave was always at great pains to say it isn't a simple 2x2 model. But now, by incorporating something about the brain, I'm going to modify it to make it exactly that. Sorry Dave!

The horizontal dimension is about the predictability of the environment - predictable at one end and unpredictable at the other. Without defining the other dimension, Dave produced a model which had four domains (plus the central area as a fifth domain).

My insight when listening to the talk was to realise that the other dimension was all about the type of thinking needed - whether it needs to be "Fast" or "Slow" (per Daniel Kahneman). At one end we have pure Fast (System 1) thinking. At the other we have not just Slow (System 2) thinking, but both Fast AND Slow - ie a mindful approach. My new version of this model is therefore shown below:
Why I found this insight helpful was that it made me understand how difficult it is in Complex and Complicated environments if we are NOT mindful, ie we lose our System 2. If we get threatened by the unpredictability of Complex environments, System 2 is closed down, and they seem (and soon become) Chaotic. And if tiredness or overload causes us to switch off System 2 in Complicated environments, we can treat them as if they were Routine (or Simple / Obvious) - with inevitably bad consequences.

So the mechanisms for approaching each environment appropriately are our usual ones involving awareness and mind management:
(a) be aware of your internal state (Is this a time to keep your System 2 on - ie be mindful?)
(b) recognise the predictability of the situation (Is it full of "problems" or are they "dilemmas"?)

Very pleased to have been reminded of a neat model - please google it to find out more...

Developing the 'eye' of leadership

"The 'eye' of leadership" is actually the title of a book by Nigel Nicholson (Professor at the London Business School) - though he writes it as "The 'I' of leadership". Nigel is someone I'm lucky enough to have worked with quite a bit and what I really like about his book (and his whole approach) is that he doesn't say leadership is this or is that, but rather that leadership is a ongoing dynamic process of paying attention - in his model to "Seeing", "Being" and "Doing". This fits with my personal experience of the reality of leadership, and it also fits the way I work as a coach to leaders, or in designing leadership development programmes.

The model I use, for what I call "learning by experience", has the same 6 pathways, but a slightly different construct, involving "Seeing", "Feeling" and "Thinking" as the loops between "Knowing" and "Doing". (NB You can click on the picture to enlarge it)

The message in both our models - supported by neuroscience as much as personal observation and theorising - is that you need to focus on "Seeing" (ie "Perception") as the key to success.

The neurobiology of Systems 1 & 2

I was coaching a group on a programme last week where one of the speakers was Paul Dolan - another of the behavoural scientists who uses the System 1 / System 2 language made famous by Daniel Kahnemann in his recent bestseller "Thinking Fast, Thinking Slow". Paul was great, and Daniel's book is a must read. What I want to do in this post is connect that language with the work of the neuroscientists - the simplified model of the brain used by eg Dr Daniel Siegel ("Mindsight"), David Rock ("Your Brain at Work"), and Dr Stephen Peters ("The Chimp Paradox") amongst many others.

The reason I want to do this is that what the neuroscience tells us is that having a mental picture (literally a picture) of the brain is what helps you use your knowledge to change things. But the system 1 & 2 insights are all explained in words! So it struck me it would be really helpful to try to map the words onto the picture. The good news is it turns out to be pretty easy - my own version of the brain model is shown below, and super-imposed on the picture are Kahnemann's thinking systems. Once you see the linkage you can also see how managing the limbic and PFC helps you manage systems 1 & 2.

System 1 is your autopilot - your limbic recognises the situation and automatically selects the appropriate programmes or data to address that situation. The various biases of System 1 (Paul's mnemonic was MINDSPACE) can all be explained by the limbic's emotional perception. Eg M stands for Messenger - we tend to believe someone who is "like us". It seems clear to me that the reason we distrust someone "unlike us" is that the limbic perceives difference as a threat, and the appropriate response to threat is to avoid / reject. You can similarly work through the rest of the mnemonic for yourself. So managing system 1 is really about managing the limbic.
System 2 is your intentional thinking - it needs to use the PFC to deliberately choose the programmes and data to use, or even to create new programmes and data. We know from neuroscience that the PFC is easily over-worked and also shut down by negative emotions - which explains why system 1 is often used just when we might need system 2 most, eg in critical decision-making situations. So once again, the key to using system 2 when you need it would appear to be managing the limbic. 
There are two other things this linkage tells us. One is that we can use system 2 to re-train system 1. The limbic learned by experience and can be re-trained by using the PFC to deliberately create alternative experiences - real or imagined in your head. That is essentially what we are doing in coaching, self-reveiew journaling or other developmental practices. We can also develop system 2's ability to monitor the activity of system 1. Practicing mindfulness mindfulness improves the PFC's function in both emotional regulation and monitoring. You may still be on autopilot using system 1 - but you can at least your system 2 can be aware that you are! 
Daniel Kahnemann can sometimes be a bit negative about the chances of changing our biases or improving our inherently bad decision-making. But with this link to the brain model, I think we can all be a lot more positive. 

Tai Chi and the limbic brain

I discovered the other day that one of my fellow Tai Chi teachers, who is also an executive coach, did his Ashridge Masters thesis on the linkages between Tai Chi and coaching. It made me realise that, although Tai Chi is a very big part of my life and certainly supports my coaching, I have until now never blogged about it. So let me pick out one linkage I make right now - Tai Chi and management of the limbic response. And in future I may share some of his insights.

In many other posts (and on my website) I have explained the neurobiology of the limbic response. Stong negative emotions (eg fear) limit our ability to respond. We simply react - typically with "fight", "flight" or "freeze". We get rigid (inflexible) and lose the ability to empathise or to act "intentionally". When we are stuck like this, one way to free ourselves up is to change our perception of the situation and thus reduce our limbic response - that is the goal of a lot of coaching.

But it also works the other way around. If we can relax the body's reaction we can directly reduce the linbic response, which in turn can change our perception. Which is where Tai Chi helps. Tai Chi is all about relaxation. When we practice our solo form we seek to eliminate tension and maintain relaxation throughout the exercise. And when we practice Tai Chi as a martial art (ie the two person exercise of "Pushing Hands" or "Sensing Hands") we are directly training our body not to react with fight, flight or freeze, even under the actual physical threat of another's contact (their push). When we stay relaxed, we continue to sense where the other person is coming from (equivalent to empathising) and we use our connection  with them to re-direct them - not fight, not flight and not freeze.

In the longer term, confidence in the power of staying relaxed actually changes your habitual fear response - the world and other people become less threatening. The corresponding reduction in fear (ie stress) in your life is clearly one of the health benefits of Tai Chi. But in the context of business leadership, the true benefit of Tai Chi (like other mindfulness practices) is in improving your ability to manage your limbic response - a huge advantage in almost any situation.

Understanding our 4 worlds

My last post prompted some questions - great to get a response BTW - about my focus on the "inner world". It prompts me to say something more about the four worlds model - a really helpful way of clarifying where you are focusing your attention at any time.

The model comes from Ken Wilber and, like much of his work, is beautifully simple. It is a classic 2 x 2 model which captures everything within 4 boxes by considering two divisions. One is the division between what is external and what is internal, the other is between what is collective and what is individual. The diagram shows the end result and gives examples of what might be in each box if you were using it to look at everything which relates to behavioural change.

For the individual: the external world contains those things that everyone can see - the skillls, knowledge, physical characteristics etc; the internal world contains what cannot be seen, but affects how the external world is seen - the assumptions, beliefs, biases etc.

For the collective: the external world is similarly about what everyone in the collective organisation can see - organisational structures, explicit rules / regulations and policies, targets and measures (KPIs) etc; the internal world is about shared beliefs that cannot be seen - orthodoxies and prejudices, culture and "unwritten rules", values and expectations etc.

My experience is that when seeking to make changes people often give too much focus to the external world that they can easily see and too little to the inner world - both personal and organisational - that is more difficult to access and more uncomfortable to address.

Practices every leader should practice

A couple of weeks ago I was working with a large multi-national on a development programme for their senior leaders from around the world. It was specifically focused on dealing with a Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous world - the world we all seem to be faced with these days! What we worked on were essentially the three thinking practices that I have recommended for many years to the executives I coach - and I realise I have never posted about them before. So here they are:

1. Focus attention on the inner world. This means looking at the assumptions, beliefs, biases and blind spots which distort our perception, and hence constrain our thinking and our actions. It means paying attention not only to your own inner world, but also to that of others you interact with, and to the the collective inner world of the organisation. This allows you to be more aware of habitual patterns of thinking or action, giving you the option of interrupting automatic processes and making more intentional decisions.

2. Take another's perspective. We all believe we do this all the time, but actually it is harder than we think. Often we get stuck in our own heads, and simply project our thinking onto others - so we don't really look from their perspective, we imagine they are seeing things as we do. I find I need the explicit help of dialogue with other people, or specific thinking tools, to really shift my point of view.

3. Use the power of the non-rational. I would usually combine this with both 1 and 2. I am talking here about listening to what your body is telling you, and using pictures, imagery, and metaphor to understand (and communicate) complexity. In complex situations the non-rational right brain often understands much more than the rational left brain can cope with.

All these ways of thinking (practices) are things we can get better at by repetition (practice). With practice they take less effort and you become more fluent and effective in their use. So don't let them be one-off experiences on a programme. Practice, practice, practice.