Purpose & Complexity

Aug 8, 2021

As we move into a new, both exciting and scary era of exponential change and disruption, we can’t rely on the old ways of leading and organising our businesses and society. We already see rapid change and disruption in business and we see turmoil in the political arena globally, Brexit, Catalonia wants to separate from Spain, fundamentalism, nationalism and demagogues are on the rise. On the other hand, we see an amazing undercurrent of positive signs in the world that rarely reach the news. Less poverty, less war, more equality and amazing new technologies for good. In this next chapter ethics will be a very important quality for leaders. How can leaders cultivate that muscle, what choices do we make and how does it benefit the whole?

We are now standing at this crossroad. How can we build a world with more equality and fairness for all, and create a bright future for the many? How can we go from an ego/ethnocentric world view to a more conscious world centric view? There’s a lot of positive signs that that is happening now with a lot of what I call global consciousness movements arising like the Me Too movement and Greta Thunberg’s Fridays For Future. These different movements change mindsets much faster than any company or government can predict.

VUCA means Volatile, Uncertainty, Complexity, Ambiguity. This is the world we are now living in and Covid just ramped it up. The question is how can we prepare ourselves and our organisations to be more comfortable living in this VUCA world? How can we make good choices faster when we don’t know? The Cynefin framework by Dave Snowden explains beautifully how we address problems.


The Simple domain is like following a recipe. The same amount of flour, sugar and eggs will get the same result over and over again. It’s predictable and there’s a clear connection between cause and effect. There’s a best practice.

The Complicated domain means that there are many different ways to do it (good practice). There’s still a connection between cause and effect, but it’s fuzzier and you need experts to understand it. Like building a car. You need a lot of knowledge and expertise. The expert mindset rules.

The Complex domain is when the cause and effect are so intertwined that it gets difficult to predict anything. If you do something once, it doesn’t mean that it’ll work again. Leadership, trust, culture change and parenting are examples of the Complex domain. Adaptive leadership, novel thinking, storytelling and being able to detect patterns become important.

The Chaotic domain is when there’s no connection between cause and effect. Leaders need to act and experiment in this domain, then learn from that and see if patterns emerge. This is a domain of not knowing and unpredictability.

In conclusion, as leaders we need to play in all four domains of the Cynefin map. One approach might work with one type of problem and to some extent with other problems, and not at all with others. In the past, organisations have tried to solve complex and chaotic problems with the mindset from the Simple and Complicated domains.

Going forward we need to prepare leaders to deal more with the Complex and Chaotic domains (VUCA). So, how do we prepare leaders for this unpredictable future and how can leaders be more comfortable with not knowing and not falling into old patterns and mindsets? Developing an internal compass with a sense of purpose and a clear set of values that guide your choices and decisions is a cornerstone in dealing with the VUCA world in a positive way. Developing your ability to sense individually and collectively is essential.

The search for meaning and care is accelerating in all organisations at the moment and that is a sign of hope and a natural evolutionary step both in human and organisational development. When the world becomes more complex and chaotic, we need to find ways to cope with that in a better way and to develop the inner compass in all of us. What we have learned from the Covid pandemic is that we can democratise leadership development and give the many an opportunity to connect with their purpose and values more deeply. Purpose is like the strange attractor in chaos. It creates order and detects patterns in chaos, a guide in complexity so to say.

In this new era of complexity, we need to redefine leadership. Getting away from the view that leadership as an elevated status or a specific ability limited to a handful of people. Anyone that feels personal accountability to find potential in people or processes can be a leader. Developing leaders in organisations is not just for the few. It’s for all, and if organisations can help their people to find their own purpose and values, and link that to the organisation’s purpose and values, the outcome of that would be more self-motivated, more resilient, more ethical, more fulfilled people.

If we can do this with sincerity, authenticity and depth, we will create more human organisations and a better world.

Lasse Wrenmark

Leadership Companion, Sweden

Lasse is a specialised consultant in culture change, leadership development, teambuilding and executive coaching. He has devised a number of transformation and culture change projects, strategy & refocusing workshops, coach the coach programmes. Lasse is an appreciated keynote speaker in the field of leadership and change. His ability to engage an audience with his authentic style and story-telling ability has led him to speak around the world including with and for the Mexican Government and top leaders in the Attorney General Office.

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