Leading change for complex projects


I’ve been facilitating lots of groups through complex challenges recently – here are some  lessons to complement those in my book, Big Little Shifts, which is all about this topic, (you can obtain a copy here). 

I am currently seeing lots of people experiencing high degrees of ongoing change at present – restructures, new product and service offerings, technological changes, role changes and cultural change. Some changes are simple and some are complex. Generally, we humans are not very good at the complex changes. We need to learn new ways to work with complex challenges.

Most people are overwhelmed at the thought of finding the time and energy to learn a new way of approaching them – but if they don’t, they will end up doing the same old thing and get the same old result – no real change. 

Participants in my workshops are always trying to understand how to make the conceptual understanding of living systems or complexity practical. They seek ‘tools’. Well, because complexity is fundamentally about the whole and relationships, the ‘tools’ in complexity are processes.  

So here is a process (or you could think of it as a few helpful tips). Right now, I’m calling this my “Perspectives to Progress Process”. As with anything in complexity though, the title and content is subject to change as my thinking around it evolves.

  1. Begin by identifying the different stakeholders or groups of people with varying perspectives on the ‘solution’ to the challenge. Invite at least one key influencer from each group. (If you have worked with me before, you may recognise ‘the pizza’ in the diagram as the tool that will help here.) Clarify your own purpose as you bring this group together. Why is it important to you and your group members? 
  2. Invite these people to a series of meetings – not just one. In my experience, a series of short meetings each fortnight works well. Start with six and see how far that gets you. Set the expectation with your group that the work will take time.
  3. Place the question that needs addressing (not your solution) on the table for the group to gather around. A question will encourage people to unite whereas a solution will usually divide them and will certainly limit the possibilities. Be clear about constraints though. There are often non-negotiables that can not be challenged, so by making these clear upfront you define the space in which the group can ‘play’.  
  4. Begin with the group verbalising a vision of how people will experience ‘the challenge’ when it has been resolved. What will it feel like, be like? Develop a co-created story and identify the most important values embedded in that vision. 
  5. Use the values identified to develop norms for your group as it meets to nurture coherence between the group’s work together and your desired ‘solution’, and refer to the vision at the beginning of every meeting. Use the vision and values as a reference point to make decisions and later for monitoring progress. 
  6. Identify the elements of the challenge that are quick and easy wins (technical elements). The bits you already know how to do. These will generate a sense of progress and energy. 
  7. Get the group to identify ‘buckets’ of the harder elements that involve people changing their mindsets or learning how to see things anew. Name those buckets, and work through them sequentially (knowing that they all interconnect anyway), agreeing on what the first ‘experiments’ will be (to see what may work)  and when you will review them. You can use experiments to resolve differences of opinion too. 
  8. Remember that you can’t ‘tell’ people to change their mindsets or beliefs in specific ways. If many people need to learn to see things differently, you are likely to need another process that engages more people in the inquiry and thinking to change their own minds. 
  9. Enjoy the journey! Be patient. It will take time. And people will feel a sense of ‘magic’ and pride when they come to a group decision about what to do and begin to make real progress. They will love bringing their strengths and their passion to the table too. It is a wonderful feeling. 

If you like this process, please download a copy of the image above as a memory jogger. 

The leadership challenge in complex challenges 

The list is ‘simple’, but the conversations involved in completing the process are often difficult to lead/facilitate because of all the different perspectives that are coming together. Additionally, there’s the temptation to place your own solution front and centre to save time – but it is crucial not to do this. If you do put your own solution as a starting point, it is likely to: 

  • Divide people (and they may never know– you may see heads nodding but not see the hearts disagreeing. Alternatively, the division may become a version of the Hunger Games!) 
  • Rob participants of the opportunity to bring their view to the table and limit the possible ‘solution’ that emerges. 
  • Miss the chance of getting people to change their own minds and, therefore, their own behaviours over time. 

The end result? Little or no real progress

Get in touch 

Because facilitating these conversations can be tricky, consider getting in touch with me so we can co-design an approach for your complex challenge. You can contact me via email here. Imagine the value it would add to make some real progress on it!