Two office workers in discussion

Rachel Collis, 15 March, 2018

Elizabeth finished the phone call and sighed. It had been a tough morning. It was only 11am and she had already fielded calls from two angry executive directors who were very concerned about the reputation of the organisation. The chair of the ‘Women who Code’ group had also accused her of window dressing an important issue, and a key employee had emailed her threatening to quit. What had prompted this storm of upset?

Elizabeth is Chief Operations Officer for a rapidly growing tech startup. A few months ago, she became concerned about the high turnover of female employees. Women seemed to join the organisation full of enthusiasm, but few of them lasted more than six months. Her concern led her to employ an external consultant to do some exit interviews. She had been saddened to discover that many of the women told the consultant that the organisation was sexist. Many described having to deal with subtle but repeated sexual harassment.

Elizabeth had taken this feedback seriously and asked one of her team, Sarah, to come up with a plan for how to address these issues. She remembered saying to Sarah, ‘This is a complex issue, make sure you consult widely with a range of stakeholders’. She had then left the matter with Sarah to deal with.

Sarah put together a draft harassment policy, much like those used in established corporations, and sent it out to everyone in the organisation for comment. This triggered the firestorm of anger and distress that Elizabeth was now dealing with.

What had gone wrong?

Elizabeth hadn’t helped Sarah to understand the nature of the problem they were working on. Sarah had assumed that the way to approach the problem was to research best practice on how to manage harassment, then apply that to their organisation.

But the problem they were trying to address – poor female retention – is actually a complex problem which needs quite a different approach.

In this short video, Jennifer Garvey Berger explains the difference between simple, complicated, complex and chaotic situations:

Complex problems are unpredictable. We cannot use best practice or prior experience to solve these types of problem. So, how do we address this type of important and challenging issue?

In their book, Simple Habits for Complex Times (2015), Garvey Berger and Johnston suggest the following strategies for navigating complex challenges:

  • Explore multiple perspectives: How do the members of the ‘Women in Tech’ group see this problem? How do different members of the board see the problem? What are their key concerns? What do they want to happen?
  • Spend some time mapping out the system: Who are the key stakeholders? What are the relationships between different stakeholders? What are the relationships between different parts of the problem? Look for patterns and themes in the information you discover.
  • Look for positive deviance: Are there any parts of the organisation where things are tending towards what you want? Perhaps a team where the female employees have slightly lower rates of turnover? What is happening there?
  • Instead of trying to come up with a simple solution to the problem, take an action learning approach: Do an experiment and see what happens. Then do another experiment based on what you have learned from the previous experiment. For Sarah, an experiment might be to facilitate some discussions between different people in the organisation about how they see the problem.

This anecdote demonstrates how many problems commonly faced by leaders are complex problems. We run into roadblocks when we apply best practice to these challenging situations. As such, leaders need new ways of responding when facing the unpredictable. It may be that successfully navigating complexity is the new essential skill for 21st-century leaders.

If you want to learn more about navigating complexity:


Rachel Collis

Rachel Collis

Experienced executive and leadership coach. Rachel teaches negotiation skills and leadership in the QUT Graduate School of Business.


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