Leading through COVID-19: How to use contextual problem-solving to transform chaos into simplicity
Cynefin, pronounced “ku-nev-in,” is a Welsh term that roughly translates as “place” or “habitat”, and it is what serves at the foundation for the Cynefin Framework, developed by David Snowden and Mary E. Boone. The underlying premise of this framework is that problem-solving in leadership is incredibly contextual, and it’s important for leaders to understand their “place” or “habitat”, in order to craft a contextually appropriate response.
The Cynefin Framework: A Problem-Solving Compass
The Cynefin framework categorizes problems into four different contexts: Chaotic, Complex, Complicated, and Simple. Each context requires leaders to analyze the situation’s solution clarity and outcome predictability, in order to develop contextually appropriate strategies for success. The impetus of this framework comes from its ability to enable leaders to strategically tailor their approach to the situation at hand, so they can gradually work to take even the most chaotic problems and make them simple. As we start to recover from COVID-19 and begin thinking of ways to grow stronger from this pandemic, this framework serves as both a compass and a source of hope for leaders. Creating simplicity from chaos is possible, and by developing and implementing the habits necessary for success within each problem-solving context, leaders can work to ensure that COVID-19 won’t be chaotic forever.
CHAOTIC CONTEXTS: Make Rapid Responses
In a chaotic context, there are no clear solutions for problems, and the environment is too turbulent for outcomes to even be identifiable, much less predictable. This is largely where many leaders have operated since the start of COVID-19; we have had to do everything we can to keep our heads above water, fashioning short-term ways to shift human and financial capital. As we all have experienced, leaders in these contexts don’t have the luxury of taking time to identify patterns and craft solutions accordingly. They need to enact rapid responses to alleviate the immediate effects of the problem. Here are some strategies from The Leader Habit that can help leaders build the habits necessary to craft rapid responses in chaotic contexts:
- Create Urgency: Set bold and audacious goals for your team, stress the importance of results, and use high-intensity words like “critical and “crucial” to convey the urgency needed to respond to change and crisis.
- Manage Risk: Anticipate risk, develop contingency plans, and implement fast-acting feedback loops, in order to manage future challenges and risks.
COMPLEX CONTEXTS: Leverage Systems Thinking
Like chaotic contexts, complex contexts are also characterized by a lack of solution clarity and outcome predictability. The only difference is: now that leaders have implemented rapid responses to stop the bleeding, they now have a little breathing room to make more systems-informed decisions. They are able to step back, analyze the environment, identify patterns, and craft innovative solutions to address the problem. Many of us have stopped the bleeding caused by COVID-19, so we are now able to shift the problem into the complex context. For this shift to occur, however, leaders must actively adopt systems thinking in their leadership approach. They must understand the system as a whole, in order to understand its interrelatedness, diagnose larger issues and implement innovative solutions. To do this, leaders should leverage these habits2:
- Analyze Data: Ask probing questions and incorporate multiple perspectives, in order to gain a largescale understanding of the system and the relationships between its moving parts.
- Innovate: Leaders in a complex context must see connections that other people don’t see. Think outside the box, encourage experimentation and risk-taking, and focus innovative efforts on solving meaningful problems.
COMPLICATED CONTEXTS: Reference Expert Opinions
Complicated contexts are the domain of expert opinions: we are able to discern possible solutions, but we don’t have any certainty in their outcomes, because we lack the expertise. In this context, it’s easy to identify gaps in knowledge, and leaders must collaborate with others who have more expertise, in order to design a solution with the best results. When thinking of this in terms of COVID-19, once we’re able to understand the systems at play, then we will be able to pinpoint the areas in which we lack knowledge, and we can then call on expert opinions to shed light on possible solutions. In other words, once we get our arms around the system, we will be able to call on experts for more guidance. While we haven’t quite moved COVID-19 into the Complicated context just yet, leaders can proactively prepare themselves for success in this environment by strengthening these habits2:
- Build strategic relationships: Leaders must identify key people who have expertise in the area of interest, prioritize the relationships that would be more critical, and establish rapport with those whose insights are invaluable to identifying solutions.
- Listen Actively: In order to reap the benefits of others’ expertise, leaders must always listen actively. Ask open-ended and probing questions, and be sure to always restate, summarize, and clarify what you hear in conversations.
SIMPLE CONTEXTS: Implement Best Practices
In simple contexts, solutions are clear, and outcomes are largely predictable, so it’s easy for leaders to rely on best practices to address problems and craft solutions. When navigating the after-effects of this pandemic, the goal of leaders should be to move COVID-19 to the simple context, where they have a playbook that they can reference to develop and implement solutions, and all they need to do is ensure that whatever play they choose is executed well. This typically occurs after learning about the ins and outs of the issue from experts in the Complicated context, and it involves strategically mobilizing resources and empowering others to solve the problem. Leaders can set themselves up for success in this area by adopting these habits2:
- Delegate well: Leaders should assign people projects that are well-suited for their interests and skills and that have a clear beginning and end point. Identify who the best person is for the task at hand, communicate what needs to be accomplished, and let that person figure out how they want to accomplish it.
- Empower others: It’s important for leaders to give people decision-making authority and provide support without removing responsibility. Set check-in points and establish milestones to monitor progress but empower people to tackle issues themselves.
A central task of effective leadership is solving problems. But the best leaders know that problem solving is a process, not an event, and the way problems are solved depends on the context. They know that their response to any problem depends on the circumstances and situation they find themselves in, and diagnosing the context is the first step in knowing what to do. In the era of COVID-19, and the endless volatile situations that are sure to follow it, leaders can rely on the Cynefin framework as both a compass and a symbol of hope that enables them to evaluate their “habitat” and use contextual problem-solving to transform chaos into simplicity.
For more content on Leading from Home, checkout our past blogs such as Leadership in a Time of Fear; The Need for Compassionate Leadership, #SocialDistancing doesn’t mean we stop working, and Develop Your Team From A Distance.
 Lanik, Martin. The Leader Habit: Master the Skills You Need to Lead in Just Minutes a Day. New York: AMACOM, American Management Association, 2018.‹ Previous PostNext Post ›