It’s no secret that the complexity of today’s business environment has leaders frazzled.

A recent survey by Eller Executive Education at the University of Arizona found that many business leaders are challenged by the wave of political, technological and cultural forces reshaping our society and, in turn, the nature of work.

Against this backdrop is another survey we gave to a cross-section of Fortune 500 global executives. It found that more than half are satisfied with their work. What they didn’t like, however, was the increased level of complexity seemingly getting in their way.

The conflicting feelings of executives expressed in both the surveys inspired me to ask the question: How can leaders come to terms with a love-hate relationship with complexity? I reached out to the respondents to our survey and asked them to share things that they love about complexity and things that they hate about it.

From my interviews emerged a series of five framing statements that agile leaders used to manage their love-hate ambivalence toward complexity.

LOVE insight, HATE data

Leaders are awash with data, trouble is that more data doesn’t always mean better results. Leaders should therefore strive to get actionable insight from the data they collect and know that some insight is better than a lot of unused data.

LOVE giving, HATE expecting

Leaders have come to expect a lot of others and ourselves; some of them get easily irritated when they don’t get what they want. Maybe a less stressful approach is to give before demanding something from others. The more leaders create a culture of giving around them, the more likely it is that they will be at the receiving end of someone else’s giving.

LOVE collaboration, HATE connections

Leaders are so hyperconnected today, but they struggle to create long-term relationships that foster collaboration and new ideas. It is only when they stop to have meaningful conversations that they create the space for understanding, trust and meaningful work.

LOVE agility, HATE frenzy

Leaders are frantically trying to keep up with the quantity and scale of problems thrown at them. Many of them address this by compressing the time they spend on each problem and maybe try to cram in more. That’s frenzy not agile. Embracing complexity here means spending more time to develop an agile mindset and increase our capacity to learn.

LOVE purpose, HATE endless planning

Having a purpose helps to make leaders’ personal and organizational direction clear to everyone they work with. Turbulent times do not allow for endless revisions of plans that inevitably have to change. Leaders’ openness around their purpose will be appreciated and rewarded with the same. And suddenly their environment will start to appear less complicated.


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