It’s also getting harder to make
leadership work because of changes
in the attitude toward traditional ways
of practicing leadership. Increasingly
people without formal authority want
to be involved in setting their own
direction and in designing their own
work and how they will coordinate
with others. They are less willing to
commit themselves to work in which
they have had no say. Yet people may
not be prepared to participate effec-
tively in leadership this way. They
may knock on the door demanding to
be let in on leadership without actu-
ally knowing how to enter into it. It’s
harder to create direction, alignment,
and commitment when there are dif-
ferent and sometimes competing
ideas of how to best accomplish this
leadership work and when people
have differing levels of readiness for
participating in leadership.
In general, leadership is more diffi-
cult today because of what Ronald A.
Heifetz, in his book Leadership With-
out Easy Answers, calls adaptive
challenges, which can also be
thought of as complex challenges. A
complex challenge is more than just a
very complicated problem. Complex-
ity implies a lack of predictability.
Complex challenges confront people
with the unknown and often result in
unintended consequences.
This unpredictability also means
that a complex challenge is quite dif-
ferent from a technical problem.
Technical problems are predictable
and solvable. Using assumptions,
methods, and tools that already exist,
people can readily define the nature
of a technical problem and prepare a
solution with some confidence in the
results. So, for example, if a key sup-
plier changes the pricing on critical
components, and such changes are
expected to happen from time to time
(the problem is already understood),
and there are established ways of
responding (tools for solving the
problem already exist), then this is a
technical problem. A technical prob-
lem arises and is solved without any
fundamental change in assumptions,
methods, or tools. Also, the people
who solve a technical problem don’t
themselves have to change.
A complex challenge cannot be
dealt with like this. Existing assump-
tions, methods, or tools are no good
in the face of a complex challenge
and may even get in the way. To be
faced successfully, complex chal-
lenges require altered assumptions,
different methods, and new tools not
yet invented. Complex challenges
require people and organizations to
change, often in profound and funda-
mental ways. This is where things get
unpredictable. Some examples of cur-
rent complex challenges are the need
for companies that have merged to
bring about culture change, for the
health care industry to address the
nursing shortage, for many compa-
nies to make the transformation from
product push to customer pull, and
for social agencies to get diverse con-
stituents with differing perspectives
to work together on such deep-rooted
issues as reducing the number of
youthful offenders.
Complex challenges are made
even more difficult by the fact that
no one can say with any authority or
accuracy just how things need to
change. This is where leadership
starts to get a lot harder. Because the
complex challenge lies beyond the
scope of existing assumptions, the
frameworks that people use to try to
understand the nature of the chal-
lenge itself are not adequate. So, for
example, it’s not just that people in
an organization that needs to
undergo a culture change don’t
know how to make the change hap-
pen. It’s worse than that. They have
no way of being sure what sort of
new culture is needed. No one who
is part of the existing organization
has any kind of especially gifted
insight into the needs of the new,
changed, still-unknown organization
of the future. Everyone has ideas, of
course, and everyone has a point of
view and may be quite attached to it.
Only by virtue of position and
authority are anyone’s ideas given
special status. Unfortunately,
although having a lot of authority
may make it possible for a person to
make sure his or her views hold
sway, that doesn’t guarantee the
effectiveness of those views.
If all of this makes it sound as
though a complex challenge requires a
lot of talk and reflection among a lot
of people in an organization, it does.
And all that talk and reflection takes a
lot of time. Because the complex chal-
lenge is not only complex but also a
challenge, however, it demands a
Complex challenges
confront people with the
unknown and often
result in unintended
Wilfred H. Drath is group
director of the Leadership
for Complex Challenges
practice area and a senior
fellow at CCL. He holds a B.A.
degree from the University
of Georgia.

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