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Preparing the workforce to manage through complexity

College of Professional Studies -

"We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them." – Albert Einstein

Today’s workforce is fraught with complex challenges that stump even the best leaders and teams. These challenges typically reflect the following characteristics:

  • It is nearly impossible to identify the right solution.
  • No one person has the full solution. 
  • It is difficult to identify cause-and-effect relationships in the situation.
  • Circumstances are unpredictable and fluid. 

Complexity is exacerbated when leaders and teams do not have full information at their disposal when analyzing issues and attempting to make decisions. And, worse yet, organizations often compel individuals to make decisions — and take action — at breakneck speeds to effectively respond to disruptive markets and competitive opportunities and threats. These combined circumstances can lead to a perfect storm — a make-or-break situation that either results in big wins or major loses.

Many working adults in professional roles encounter complexity in varying degrees within their organizations. It is questionable, however, whether most individuals are prepared to navigate such complexity.

This reality signals a need for change in how organizations and academic institutions develop the existing and upcoming workforce. Both leaders and their employees need to embrace complexity and leverage specific skills to achieve success for their organizations, their teams and even themselves.

A workforce that is mobilized to successfully navigate complex challenges reflects the following:

  • Self-awareness: Valid and reliable self-assessments are an excellent way to understand personal (and even team) work style and responses. For example, if an individual prefers a stable, data-driven environment with predictable outcomes, dealing with complexity and ambiguity in a fast-paced workplace might cause anxiety and stress. Understanding one’s style and, even more importantly, learning new approaches —even if antithetical to one’s preferred style — can improve effectiveness and outcomes in a variety of situations. 
  • Humility: As adults become more expert in their fields, they may be hesitant to admit that they don’t know everything. Additionally, asking for help and feedback might not be a top-of-mind option. However, in complex situations, it is important that colleagues lean on each other’s experiences, viewpoints and talents to explore issues and effectively address them. Learning to put aside one’s ego and seek collaboration from others —particularly those who are closest to the complex issues — can advance the greater good and create breakthrough solutions.
  • Inquisitiveness: Leading with an “answer” can be lethal in complex situations. Instead, individuals should consider pausing and leading with questions. However, developing powerful questions can be harder than it appears. Individuals with the ability to facilitate psychologically safe dialogue with well-designed open (not closed) questions that spark curiosity and build vision can foster unconventional — and effective — solutions in complex situations.
  • Diversity: Seeking and embracing diverse experiences, backgrounds, skill sets and viewpoints is a powerful approach to unraveling complex problems. Each perspective helps identify different aspects of the problem, unearths themes and patterns, and ultimately leads to emerging solutions. Leveraging relational skills to break down people silos and connect colleagues and other key stakeholders with different “lenses” can support teams through complexity.
  • Adaptability: Since complex issues can be unpredictable and not reflect a discernible cause and effect, individuals need to demonstrate adaptability and nimbleness in their approach. When seeking diverse viewpoints and testing possible solutions, new information and innovative ideas may arise. Consequently, existing mental models, prior decisions and current work practices might be challenged. It is critical that individuals demonstrate ability to shift their thinking and direction — often quickly— to survive and thrive in complex situations.

Complexity, ambiguity, volatility and uncertainty in the workplace can create challenges that might seem insurmountable. However, leveraging these skills and approaches can turn challenges into opportunities that propel individuals, teams and organizations to higher levels of achievement and success.

Learn more about innovative workforce development ideas by visiting Carlow University’s College of Professional Studies here.


About the Author: Carlow University’s guest columnist Tony Gigliotti serves as director of talent management and organizational development at UPMC. Carlow University partners with UPMC to provide college credit for their leaders who complete the UPMC Leadership Development Intensive (LDI) program. 
Contact: College of Professional Studies