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Courage to Clarify: Leadership and Decision-Making Amidst Complexity

A complex situation requires a different response than one that is complicated. Learn the mistakes leaders need to avoid in complex scenarios, and how to find clarity for decision-making.


In a Nutshell

  • A situation that is complex is different from one that is complicated. Each one requires a different leadership response.

  • When navigating complexity, leaders need to resist the tendency to refer to prior training and experience, and instead make sense of the new and unique situation before committing to a decision.

  • In complex situations, it takes courage for leaders to shift from self-sufficiency to relying on others to help them recognise reality and find clarity.


In this VUCA world, it’s more important than ever for leaders to accurately assess situations in order to respond appropriately to the changing business environment.

And there is one pitfall that even the most seasoned executives fall into: seeing situations as complicated, when what they actually are is complex.

The Cynefin framework (pronounced kuh-ne-vin) is a tool, created by management consultant David J. Snowden, designed to empower leaders to make better decisions through evaluating and sorting the business issues they encounter.

Let's examine how Complex situations are different from Complicated ones and why leaders need to make the distinction in order to lead effectively.

The complex and complicated, according to the Cynefin framework

The Cynefin framework is essentially a sense-making tool.

Stemming from a Welsh word meaning “habitat,” Cynefin refers to the myriad of factors in our situation and experiences that influence us in ways we don’t understand.

The Cynefin mental model comprises four domains:

  1. Simple Contexts: The Domain of Best Practice

  2. Complicated Contexts: The Domain of Experts

  3. Complex Contexts: The Domain of Emergence

  4. Chaotic Contexts: The Domain of Rapid Response

Each domain has a corresponding decision-making approach. Once a situation has been properly categorised, leaders are able to make better decisions as well as avoid the problems that come up from falling back on their preferred management styles.

We’ll focus specifically on the Complicated and Complex domains here:

Complicated: Expert Advisory Needed

Complicated domains feature a web of cause-and-effect relationships. As with a control board with many levers and knobs, it takes a skilled operator to know which elements to adjust. The cause-and-effect relationships are only apparent to those with enough expertise.

An example of this is in oil drilling. A lot goes into creating a productive oil field, and oil exploration relies on the analysis of many layers of geological features. Based on that analysis, explorers come up with probability estimates to convince upper management to drill holes in high-value spots.

In the Complicated domain, a leader’s role is to sense, analyse, and respond. Ideally, the leader would gather a panel of experts and listen to contrarian advice to ensure that the solution is robust.

Complex: Be Patient, Experiment, and Let the Solution Unfold

The Complex domain is characterised by flux and unpredictability. There are many competing ideas and unknown unknowns, making it difficult to pinpoint one right answer. Time and patience are necessary for patterns and solutions to emerge.

The way Samsung bounced back from the 2016 Note 7 battery crisis is an example of a Complex situation. While the engineering problem itself was in the Complicated domain, Samsung had to keep the public informed via the press (Chaotic), organise recalls (Simple), handle multiple lawsuits (Complicated), and through all of that pivot to a bigger brand purpose (Complex).

Situations in the Complex domain require a facilitative, coach-like leadership style. Top-down management approaches do not work well here. Leaders must create interactive environments and design experiments that are safe to fail to find a path forward.

Complex situations: "what got you here won't get you there"

If you have to make a decision based on incomplete information, chances are that you’re in the Complex domain.

In the Complicated domain, there are often many right answers. Expert advice and dissenting viewpoints can help to unearth all relevant information so leaders can make the best possible decision.

But in the Complex domain, there are no right answers. Leaders don’t know what they don’t know, and it’s impossible to uncover every single bit of information. Finding a viable path forward is more about identifying emerging patterns rather than using a complete set of facts to come up with an expert solution. Leaders fall into the trap of misclassification when they judge, too quickly, that the situation at hand is similar to one from their memories. They then try to force-fit past solutions for present problems.

Leaders fall into the trap of misclassification when they judge, too quickly, that the situation at hand is similar to one from their memories. They then try to force-fit past solutions for present problems.

It’s not hard to understand why. Most senior leaders have built their reputations on their competency and considerable experience in the industry. If you’re a project manager, it’s natural to look at an issue and attribute the cause to poor structuring processes or ill-defined roles and responsibilities. If you’re an engineer, it’s natural to think the problem is a technical one.

The problem is that using your expertise to navigate business as usual does not work when there’s nothing usual about the situation.

The problem is that using your expertise to navigate business as usual does not work when there’s nothing usual about the situation.

Leaders who think they have all the answers put their organisations at risk. As experienced as they may be, no single individual has a monopoly on ideas, knowledge, and experience.

As we inch toward a post-pandemic future, the increased ambiguity and uncertainty call for a new way of leadership. This begins with a mental shift: what got you here won’t get you there.

In complex situations, leaders need the Courage to Clarify

Episode 3 of our Courageous Leadership series focuses on the Courage to Clarify. One of the things leaders cannot fail to do in today’s changing world. As our world changes rapidly, critical leadership shifts are also taking place and leaders must respond in new ways and that takes courage.

Leaders need the courage not to fall back on prior training and experience; and secondly, leaders need the courage to stop, pause, and make sense of the situation before committing to a decision, a counter-intuitive response in high-pressure situations.

Leading with the Courage to Clarify means breaking the myth of the “one right answer.” Instead of playing the role of an expert and impeccable decision-maker, leaders must become aware that they have only a piece of the answer. Their job is to draw out insights from team members, formulate a hypothesis together, then conduct business experiments that will reveal the way forward.

Leading with the Courage to Clarify breaks the myth of the “one right answer.”

On that note, this courage is also intricately linked with humility: the willingness to admit when you’re wrong and to course-correct. It’s unlikely that you’ll have the best strategy right at the start. What’s important is to be willing to fail, but learn from each failure through an iterative process that will help your team build on each insight.

What’s important is to be willing to fail, but learn from each failure through an iterative process that will help your team build on each insight.

Five ways leaders practise the Courage to Clarify

What does the Courage to Clarify actually look like? Here are 5 practical tips for leaders to put into practice, from our ebook Building Culture in a Time of Crisis.

1. Don’t be afraid to show vulnerability.

As well-known speaker and author Brené Brown says, “Imperfections are not inadequacies; they are reminders that we’re all in this together.”

When leaders model vulnerability, employees are more open to voicing their own concerns. Deeper conversations can take place, and leaders gain higher-quality insights and perspectives as they uncover the underlying business issues.

But vulnerability takes wisdom: knowing what to share and with whom.

“That’s not to say that we hide things. We are vulnerable to say that it isn’t easy. There was honesty but you need to balance that with wisdom on just how much you share,” Rachel (CEO of ROHEI) says, referring to the organisation's experience early in the pandemic. “If you express fear, everybody is going to be afraid. So even though I was afraid, I had to hold the fear within. Because we moved with courage, the people had confidence.”

2. Seek verbal feedback for greater awareness and clarity.

Part of building trust and facilitating open discussion means creating a two-way street for feedback. If leaders can model a willingness to receive feedback without any bias or presumptions, it goes a long way toward creating a safe space where people can freely share.

Actively seeking feedback also builds a culture where gossip and office politics are discouraged. Instead of employees talking about each other (or their leaders) behind their backs, people feel able to bring issues directly to the person involved. This allows employees to resolve issues quickly instead of letting problems fester, nurturing a culture of trust.

3. Share the why, engage on the how.

Uncertainty and ambiguity breed doubt and fear.

Faced with glaring gaps in understanding, people naturally fill in the blanks on their own—and not usually in positive ways.

But when leaders are intentional about communicating the ‘why’ behind business decisions, staff feel they have a stake in how the situation unfolds. And when everyone is involved in coming up with solutions together, the organisation as a whole benefits.

This requires humility on the leader’s part and a willingness to admit that he or she doesn’t have all the answers.

A good example of this is in the Courage to Clarify video where we share about Fukushima Daini. While you may know about the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster, you may not have heard about its lesser-known sister plant 10 kilometres away. Unlike the Daiichi plant, Daini pulled through the magnitude 9.0 earthquake and prevented a catastrophic nuclear meltdown—in part because its site superintendent calmly presented the entire situation and rallied his people to confront each problem together.

4. Set aside your assumptions.

Leaders sometimes fall into the trap of entrained thinking. This is when people are blinded to seeing new perspectives because of their past experience, training, and successes.

That’s why effective information gathering requires leaders to set aside their assumptions. Don’t try to bring in a model or framework that has worked in the past and then impose a solution for your team to execute.

Instead, allow your team members to weigh in on what they see and feel. Each of them will see different sides of the situation, allowing you to get a clearer picture of the whole. Within that diversity of views, innovation flourishes and possible ways forward emerge.

5. Value the worker before the work.

A Glassdoor study found that 81% of employees surveyed felt motivated to work harder when their boss showed appreciation for them. But more than showing appreciation, the fundamental idea here is to instill the feeling that people are valued not just for what they bring to the table, but for who they are.

As business psychologist Dr. Merete Wedell-Wedellsborg puts it, “Don’t only talk about ‘getting things done’ in your conversations with your colleagues, but also recognize ‘who they are’ using specific examples of their personal contributions and human qualities. This will reduce anxiety and second-guessing.”

As much as remote working arrangements have taken their toll on working relationships, it isn’t an impossible barrier to transcend. In fact, technology makes it possible to connect directly with more colleagues than ever before.

One example to we share in our ebook is how the leaders at global industrial and engineering company Linde maintained the high-touch factor even after the onset of the pandemic.

When Principal Consultant Calvin Yeo interviewed the leaders at Linde, he found that they’d been hosting what they call “sanity check-ins” every Monday morning. These half-hour meetings are where employees talk about anything other than work. With the remote working arrangements, this helped to replace a lot of the informal time they used to have to catch up and bond with colleagues in person.

Leading in this VUCA world requires leaders to step out of their comfort zones to do things differently and to depend on other people more than ever before. This new realm of leadership is one of humility, recognising that one doesn't always have a complete picture of reality. It's an approach that is collaborative, realising the need for the input of others. And it is thoughtful, taking time to make sense of the situation. Leaders who take this step of courage find the clarity and help they need for making sound decisions.


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