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Managing Complexity and Chaos

Headwinds are not unusual in the workplace, but these past few years have felt more… chaotic.   In the U.S. alone last year, there was a +98% increase in layoffs versus 2022 with speculations of a rough 2024 ahead.

Amidst the turbulence and an increase in post-pandemic stress levels, understanding chaos and complexity becomes crucial.  Of equal importance is to stay empathetic and attuned to the human impact — to understand that so many talented people may be affected during this time, and that there is a lot of change for people to navigate with limited support.

Today, let’s delve into some key tools and frameworks to support leaders through different kinds of contexts.

Cynefin: A framework to understand complexity and chaos (source):

The Cynefin framework (prounced ku-nev-in) has evolved through hundreds of real-world applications from military to government to corporations.   This framework offers leaders a map of operating contexts, from simple to chaotic, guiding decision-making and management styles.

The five contexts are defined by their relationship between cause and effect:

  • Simple and complicated contexts assume an ordered universe, where cause-and-effect relationships are known and answers can be determined through facts, systems thinking and scenario planning. This is common ground for management consultants.

  • Complex and chaotic contexts are unordered—there is no immediately coherent relationship between cause and effect, and the way forward is determined based on emerging patterns and experimentation.

  • Disorder is difficult to recognize when one is in it. Here, multiple perspectives fight for prominance, factional leaders argue with one another, and there is disharmony. The path forward is to break down the situation into constituent parts and assign each to one of the other four realms. Then, leaders can then make decisions and intervene in contextually appropriate ways.

Today, I’ll be going deeper on two of these: Complex and Chaotic.

>> Complex Contexts… The Domain of Emergence.

In complex contexts, we can only understand what’s happening in hindsight.  Many organizational situations are complex, whether it’s a bad quarter, a management change, or an acquisition.  These disruptions introduce unpredictability in the system and require a different orientation towards action.

In this context, command-and-control management styles that demand pre-defined outcomes and concrete planning are inadequate.  What’s required instead is an experimental management style that takes a step back and allows patterns and experimentation to happen. 

Complex contexts require more interactive communication and debates.  Rather than looking outside for best practices, teams should be encouraged to generate ideas through debates and solutions that are emerging within the system they’re in.

>> Chaotic Contexts… The Domain of Rapid Response.

In this context, searching for the “right” answer is pointless.  No manageable pattern exists and the relationship between cause and effect are impossible to determine.  This is the realm of unknowables and feeling out of control.  There are too many moving pieces and no constraints in place.

In the chaotic domain, a leader’s immediate job is to restore order while fostering innovation, and seizing opportunities amidst uncertainty. Leaders need to first establish order, then sense where stability is missing, then transform the situation from chaos to complexity so that teams are able to discern new opportunities and patterns.

In this context, communication needs to be directive and top-down. There is simply no time to ask for input.

This domain is great to catapult innovation in parallel with managing chaos. A great strategy is to identify separate teams to manage the crisis versus focus on new opportunities to do things differently. Chances are that after the crisis, the bigger opportunities will be gone.

Great leaders of tomorrow adapt to different contexts:

A few final words…

My heart goes out to everyone who is feeling affected by all the changes and turbulence today. It can feel hard to accept the fact that the pace of change today is the slowest it will ever be. I hope this newsletter supported you with some tools to navigate the context you are operating in.

For modern leaders in the workplace, it will be critical to stay adaptable. As uncertainty persists, leaders will need to get skillful at identifying which context they’re operating in, how to wield power, when to tap into collective wisdom versus make tough calls, and how to communicate in different contexts.

Leaders will need to self-manage as well. This means managing our nervous systems, listening to our bodies, and staying resourced internally. In this era, Rest is Resistance and we can all learn to pace ourselves in a way that feels sustainable and nourishing.

This may sound overwhelming to some of you and exciting to others.  Hiring a coach to navigate complexity and chaos may be a great investment for you to grow and be supported in new contexts.  There’s a great learning curve in these times for all of us, and it helps to have a trusted confidant along for the ride. 

Don’t hesitate to reach out if you’d like some support or a confidential conversation.

Always be learning,


I’m a coach who helps mid-senior leaders and orgs get to where they want to go with more strategic clarity, fulfilment and ease. Book a call to connect.

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