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Uncomfortably excited Staying in the ‘sweet spot’ for personal performance is harder than ever, but complexity theory and neuroscience can help. Bill Duane explains

Cause and effect ain’t what it used to be

One of the signature features of the complexity we face today is the relationship between cause and effect. The Cynefin framework, developed by Dave Snowden of Cognitive Edge, divides systems into four ‘domains’:

1 Systems are simple when cause and effect are readily observable

2 Systems are complicated when causality is there, but expert analysis is required

3 Systems are complex when causality is an emergent quality of what’s happening now

4 Systems are chaotic when cause and effect are nowhere to be found. Dialogue Q1 2020

To make things interesting, systems slip in and out of these conditions, sometimes quickly; and the sheer level of change around us, in technology, markets, political institutions and culture, means that the relationship between cause and effect changes more often than it used to. This is the world that the US Army describes as VUCA: volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous. Many types of work that were simple or complicated are now complex and sometimes chaotic. Unfortunately, established ways of managing systems assume a steady state of causality, where we can measure the past to predict the future and make adjustments to optimize results. But managing a complex system as if it were a simple or complicated system will fail. Instead, our approach has to be nimble and constantly recreated, as we assess emerging causality, rally around it and then let it go for the next round. Managing complexity involves trying out many new ideas and quickly culling the ones that don’t work, constantly moving on to what’s next. That is easier said than done, however: we can all become deeply attached to our preferred ways of doing things. They become our professional identities – and when you start messing with issues of identity, work gets stressful.

Neuroscience and stress: your job is not a bear attack

Stress is the nervous system’s reaction to perceived challenges, including rapid environmental change. When an animal encounters stimuli that may be a threat, the sympathetic nervous system is activated, producing the fight-or-flight response. The same system has survived in humans: we have a nervous system optimized for bear attacks. The eyes widen, the heat beats faster, energy is made available for action and the senses sharpen.


The scope of transformation in business is already broad and it is increasing exponentially. Success in these turbulent times means responding to rapidly shifting dynamics and working differently. There’s just one problem: our nervous system responds to complexity and the unknown with a primal ‘fight or flight’ tool-set which, in the modern world, can lead us to make things worse. Leading in complexity calls for a level head, a willingness to let go of what previously made you successful, and a firm set of values that provide an anchor. Happily, these behaviours are eminently trainable. My experience working on these issues during 12 years at Google and a decade consulting is that the disciplines of complexity theory and neuroscience help point out the path ahead.

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Dialogue Q1 2020  

The second wave: Preparing for digital transformation New technologies are starting to transform products, services and business models tha...

Dialogue Q1 2020  

The second wave: Preparing for digital transformation New technologies are starting to transform products, services and business models tha...