In January 1993, a gunman murdered seven people in a fast-food restaurant in Palatine, a suburb of Chicago. In his dual roles as an administrative executive and spokesperson for the police department, Deputy Chief Walter Gasior suddenly had to cope with several different situations at once. He had to deal with the grieving families and a frightened community, help direct the operations of an extremely busy police department, and take questions from the media, which inundated the town with reporters and film crews. “There would literally be four people coming at me with logistics and media issues all at once,” he recalls. “And in the midst of all this, we still had a department that had to keep running on a routine basis.”
Though Gasior was ultimately successful in juggling multiple demands, not all leaders achieve the desired results when they face situations that require a variety of decisions and responses. All too often, managers rely on common leadership approaches that work well in one set of circumstances but fall short in others. Why do these approaches fail even when logic indicates they should prevail? The answer lies in a fundamental assumption of organizational theory and practice: that a certain level of predictability and order exists in the world. This assumption, grounded in the Newtonian science that underlies scientific management, encourages simplifications that are useful in ordered circumstances. Circumstances change, however, and as they become more complex, the simplifications can fail. Good leadership is not a one-size-fits-all proposition.
We believe the time has come to broaden the traditional approach to leadership and decision making and form a new perspective based on complexity science. (For more on this, see the sidebar “Understanding Complexity.”) Over the past ten years, we have applied the principles of that science to governments and a broad range of industries. Working with other contributors, we developed the Cynefin framework, which allows executives to see things from new viewpoints, assimilate complex concepts, and address real-world problems and opportunities. (Cynefin, pronounced ku-nev-in, is a Welsh word that signifies the multiple factors in our environment and our experience that influence us in ways we can never understand.) Using this approach, leaders learn to define the framework with examples from their own organization’s history and scenarios of its possible future. This enhances communication and helps executives rapidly understand the context in which they are operating.