The questions to ask when everything is unknown

Systemic intelligence is an indispensable skill for business leaders.

by Mieke Jacobs and Paul Zonneveld
Last Updated: 05 Jun 2020

In the chaos of the COVID-19 crisis, the normal executive agenda has been overlaid, leaving leaders facing deep questions they were formally not attending to. In the space of just a few weeks, its become starkly clear that there are no simple solutions in our interconnected world. 

Organisations are complex, living systems. Nothing works in isolation: all elements in an organisation, company, industry, society, are visibly and invisibly connected to each other. If we want to understand what is disrupting our global economies and our specific company footprint, we need to explore the entire system and the underlying dynamics, instead of just fixing the symptoms.

Systemic intelligence should become an indispensable skill for leaders, we need different instruments and different qualities to navigate in a complex environment.

So how do you look beyond the symptoms, and balance short and long term objectives? Below are five questions to ask yourself in times of uncertainty:

1. Can I see both the woods and the trees?

Successful leaders have always held the trait of being able to be in the middle of the action, while still observing the game from a distance. In this complex interconnected society, leaders are asked to upskill at a high speed. We need to hold much more complexity than before, and at the same time refine our subtle capacities to be fully present in the moment. 

Can you see the macro-economic consequences of your decisions, and at the same time attend to the needs of your executive team? Can you engage the entire organisation in your strategic narrative, and still hear the voice of the operator on the shop floor? Can you take million-dollar decisions every day, and notice what your child needs in this moment?

2. Am I overengineering plans?

As leaders, we’re often inclined to make detailed strategic plans, set long-term targets, and define tactical execution plans, for years to come. Yet the optimal solution is outdated before we have even implemented it. The organisational system and the value chain might react to your first moves in a totally different way than you expected. As a result, the second step you had planned is not the right one anymore.

At such times of uncertainty, it becomes more important to take the first step and experience how the organisation responds to it, understand what to conclude from it about your initial assumptions and the interconnections, and adjust your next move accordingly. Of course it is still important to set a clear direction, draft a plan and define the operating boundaries, but you must realise that the road might not look exactly like the one you’ve mapped out. This requires us to build our capacity to deal with ambiguity, with ‘not knowing’, and discomfort

3. How can I bring my executive team to the eye of the storm?

Leadership teams need to be comfortable with finding their way through storms. In a period of crisis and chaos, being able to rise above the hectic ‘perceived’ reality, in order to bring in fresh and positive perspectives is critical. 

That way, we can safeguard a zone where we may not feel completely calm, but have enough space to observe the real dynamics in our organisations and beyond. From that place, we can witness – in all honesty - how we are interfering with the system under pressure and in cases contributing to the challenges or even exacerbating it

4. What will be the impact of my decisions for the generations to come?

Many leaders are driven by the legacy they will leave behind. They are eager to put their stamp on the organisation, to do better than before. But when you consider yourself as a hero - the one who is saving the day and gets the applause or the bonus for it – leadership becomes risks becoming a heroic solo effort rather than a team game.

As yourself: what am I trying to prove, and to whom? Creating a longer-term vision in which you can see yourself as one link in a lineage of leaders gives the organisation and the surrounding value chain a North Star to aim for

5. What is my own fifth question?

Coronavirus has affected so many existential areas: health, family, human connection, the care for elders, government, media, distribution of wealth, ecology -  it has made many of us engage in deeper societal reflection and dialogue, as leaders and as human beings.

What are you contemplating? What do you learn? How will it shape who you are and how you will lead going forward? How will you reinvent your true purpose, and the one for the company that you are leading?

Mieke Jacobs and Paul Zonneveld are leadership and organisational transformational facilitators and co-authors of EMERGENT.

Image credit: Kryssia Campos via Getty Images


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