Business leaders excel at managing highly controlled environments. They are also reconciled to the challenges of trying to control random or catastrophic events.
Our work in organizations is frequently driven by a request to innovate, implement, sustain, and evolve internal systems in the “grey zone” – the areas of organizations where there is continuous change, emergence, and self-organization. The Complexity Space™ Framework is a robust tool for developing a new executive mindset – recognizing the depth and breath of opportunities for demonstrable change in the “grey zone.”
Conventional wisdom believes that the most desirable operating environments are those that run like “well-oiled machines,” embodying the highest standards of quality, consistency and predictability – a “white swan.” On the opposite end of the spectrum, “black swans” (made widely popular after Nassim Taleb’s book, The Black Swan, The Impact of the Highly Improbable, are conditions or scenarios so highly improbable that even the greatest managers cannot plan or predict for them, so they are acknowledged to be outside of their immediate scope of control.
If you ask a business manager to rank the situations they are best prepared to handle — white swan, black swan or grey swan events, what’s the result?
- White swans because they know how to respond.
- Black swans because they need to react to survive.
- Grey swans – huh???
The results are not surprising when you consider the traditional standards by which leaders plan and operate. Processes from the traditional management playbook offer researched and tested protocols for improving an organization’s operations and sustaining an engaged and innovative culture. Executive mindsets have been fine-tuned to lead their organizations in a systematic way from their current state to a desired future state – in the company of white swans.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, borrowing from process models currently part of an organization’s business strategy, leaders are trained to employ crisis management protocols to deal with disruptive and unexpected event that threaten to harm the organization, its stakeholders, or the general public – the increasingly inevitable black swans.
Organizational ecosystems seldom embody only the qualities of white or black swans – they are also populated by grey swans, which exist in large part because of the increasing complexity in business systems. Grey swans swim in this vast zone, where leaders are required to focus their innovation, insights and management attention. The organizations we support have begun to recognize the importance on building leadership capacity to address the organizational impact of grey swans by understanding the “waters” in which they swim.
As a side note, Wikipedia’s entry on Grey provides another level of metaphoric pondering. “In America and Europe, grey is one of the least popular colors; In a European survey, only one percent of men said it was their favorite color, and thirteen percent called it their least favorite color; the response from women was almost the same. According to color historian Eva Heller, “grey is too weak to be considered masculine, but too menacing to be considered a feminine color. It is neither warm nor cold, neither material nor spiritual. With grey, nothing seems to be decided.”
We enjoy shifting executives’ perception away from operating in the “grey” as the space where “nothing seems to be decided.” Recognizing the continuously changing properties of the grey zone offers critical opportunities for data collection, iterative analysis, prioritization of experiments and ultimately, intelligent disruption.
It is an unfortunate fact that grey swans can’t simply be painted white — or that our organizations cannot be continually turned into highly organized, controlled and predictive environments. Within a complexity and pattern-based system the goal is not to white-out the variation out of a system, but rather to develop a fluid process that continuously moves from its current state towards a desired state while acknowledging the complex realities and benefits of the “grey zone.”
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Learn more about the Complexity Space™ Framework, with our book, “Complexity Works!” at https://tinyurl.com/Complexity-Works.