Category Archives: Developing others

Navigating human complexity

Navigating complexity requires a mix of systems-thinking and human-centered thinking. There are a lot of different types of complexities – human, organizational, systemic. This is going to be a series exploring some different approaches to recognizing, getting comfortable with, and understanding complexity.

Navigating complexity among people and relationships

In their book Switch, Dan and Chip Heath dedicate a section of the book to the concept that when you’re facing what looks like a people problem, it’s often actually an environment or situation problem. A simple example of what this means is illustrated in an excerpt from their book: “When some guy cuts you off in traffic, you probably think, instinctively: What a jerk. (Or perhaps your inner voice is more vulgar.) What you almost certainly don’t think to yourself is, Gosh, I wonder what’s wrong that he is in such a hurry. It’s not hard to see why we don’t think that – it seems kind of naive, as if we’re making an excuse for a bad person. But think about your own behavior. Think of a time when you were driving so crazily that others would have been justified to curse you. Was your crazy driving on that day a manifestation of your true character (i.e., you’re a jerk at the core)? Or was it sparked by the situation you were in?”

When people do a bad job, lack motivation, even do bad things, we often attribute it to their character. It’s easier that way than to take the time and make the effort to try to distill the different factors that might be contributing to their actions. Navigating complexity often rears its head when you find yourself up against challenges with people, and like the excerpt shows, our knee jerk reaction is generally one of the following –they’re ignorant, they’re an idiot, or they’re evil.  But that’s too simple. People are complex, and we are all trying to navigate equally complex systems. And this doesn’t need to be just one individual person, it could be a group, or a community. The same can be said when thinking about behavior change or movement building.

So how do we shift our thinking from going to an immediate assumption of badness when we encounter people who in one way or another, aren’t living up to our expectations? You can start by practicing one part curiosity and one part human-centeredness.

Curiosity is the antidote to judgment. Taking a position of genuine curiosity necessitates the openness needed to properly excavate the situation and get to the heart of the matter. By approaching someone as a puzzle instead of thinking you already know the answer, you allow them to hold your hand as they walk your through their complexities. This is the best safeguard against incorrect assumptions. When you catch yourself assuming, or thinking you know the reason for something, ask a question instead. It’s rare to have real, straight forward conversations with people, and often they are scared to be up front, especially when it comes to their challenges. So if you take the initiative, and commit to having open, honest, curious conversations, and ask questions, what seems complex on the outside, can be decoded for you.

This aligns very much with taking a human-centered approach, where you put the person at the center and create the intervention around and for them. This isn’t about making excuses for someone, it’s about understanding why, because then, you might be able to do something productive about it. In management, for instance, it could be that they intrinsically lack motivation, or it could be that they weren’t set up for success. And if they weren’t set up for success, you have the ability to do something about it.

So next time you’re faced with a person or a group that you can’t seem to wrap your head around, instead of writing them off, realize that between human complexity, and the complex world we live in, take the time to understand, before you make your decision.

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The Leader, as Follower

There is a common misconception that being a leader means being the one to come up with the best ideas, that it’s about being powerful, or about knowing all the right answers. But being a real leader means knowing how to be a follower. None of us will ever know everything, and even more, so much of what we believe we know is subjective. There are two types of followership in leadership, the first is as a servant leader, following your stakeholders, and the second is following your team.

Servant leadership has become a more recently popularized concept, but has its origins as far back ancient China and the New Testament. The idea behind servant leadership is that the people who you are serving come first, and you create everything you do with them at the center. Much like human-centered thinking, servant leadership is about focusing on the people affected and involved, and making sure they are not only at the center of your planning but that their voices are the influencing factors in your decisions. How this relates to following, is that as a leader, you must invert the pyramid, where the base, or the stakeholders are on top, and the point, or the leader, is on the bottom. Leading from the back of the line means helping to keep people on the path that they want to be following, rather than telling them where they should be going.

Secondly, surrounding yourself with a diverse and knowledgeable team and then taking cues from them will allow you to be a more effective leader by practicing followership. Recognizing that you don’t know everything gives you the flexibility to be able to turn to those around you who might know better, or at least can share different opinions, in order to strengthen your programs and positions. The best thing you can realize for yourself is that working alone is not only counterproductive, it’s unnecessary. The more you look to people to break down your ideas and challenge them, the stronger you can build those ideas up into something more well-rounded and effective.

Taking the suggestions, thoughts, and inputs of all of these people and figuring out how to catalyze their collective ideas into reality is a true sign of leadership. This takes practice in being comfortable shifting seamlessly between being a leader and being a follower.

Being a leader who follows is not about playing it safe and doing what everyone else is doing, but rather, having the ability to dig deep into the needs of your stakeholders, empower and hear the ideas of your team members, and work to build a cohesive plan in collaboration with them and using them as your guide and inspiration.

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The gratitude/entitlement shift

You did it. You got the job, or the promotion, won the election, got the raise. You worked hard, you put in the hours, the blood, the sweat, the tears. And now you’re there. Where you’ve been wanting to be.

When does the shift from being so grateful that we were able to achieve our dreams devolve into our belief that we somehow deserve to have achieved them? When does our gratitude – the awe, the appreciation that you made it, turn into entitlement?

Great leadership rests in continuing to cultivate gratitude that you are where you are. And this doesn’t only apply to the people at the top. Every time we get to the next rung of the ladder, we react with a certain sense of disbelief that we did it, but fast forward a few months or years, not only do we take for granted we are there, we also don’t understand how we are not on the next rung already. This isn’t to say that you shouldn’t be ambitious or have lofty goals or even be satisfied, but rather to remind yourself that there was a time when where you are now is the place you were dreaming to be.

How do you sustain this outlook as novelty and excitement wear off and forward-looking begins? Part of it is recognizing that your success does not exist in a vacuum, but was built on the legacy of those who came before you, those who taught you, those who believed in you, and the fact that the world is the way that it is at this moment in time. And then acting on that recognition by lifting up the people around you and making sure you are contributing to a world in which others can be lifted up too.

It is also remembering your “why?”. So rarely are we challenged with truly answering the question of “why?”. Why do you do what you do? Why do you believe what you believe? Why do you care about this issue? Why did you end up here? The “why” reminds us of our raison d’être. The why is not position specific, it is the greater cause or calling that reminds us of what outside ourselves moved us to act. Your why is the path on the journey. When you challenge yourself to articulate your “why,” every step along the way is significant in and of itself.

But it is so easy to get swept up in the day to day that reminding ourselves not to take it all for granted, and then want more, can be easy to forget to do. So find daily cues around you that will help you be intentional in humbly practicing the art of everyday gratitude.

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A Human-Centered Approach to Leadership

You may have heard of Human-Centered Design, an idea made popular by the design firm IDEO, among others, and beginning to gain mainstream traction, especially in the innovation space. The idea is that you put the human at the center of whatever it is you are designing, because after all, they are the users and ones you are supposedly designing for. In order to succeed in truly human-centered thinking, you need to take an ethnographic, anthropological approach, spending time getting to understand the needs of the people you are designing for, and developing something that is useful and makes practical sense based on your investigation and observation.

Being a human-centered thinker is at the core of modern leadership. This might seem obvious, or that it should be intuitive, but often times, the humans being served are the last to be thought about.

To help illustrate exactly what human-centered thinking is, let’s start with a design example – how many times have you used a product or tried to navigate a building and thought to yourself, “who did they design this for?” Maybe it’s a package that is insanely difficult to open, or a shelf that was installed too high for any normal-sized person to actually reach. This particular design story is about the mop. Yes, your good ol’ household cleaning mop. Think about the terrible impracticality of a mop – you need to lug around a bucket of water in order for the mop to be useful, which quickly becomes dirty water that you end up spreading all over the floor. If you are putting the user at the center of the mop experience, the mop is an irritating, at best, cleaning appliance – it is cumbersome, messy, frustrating and inefficient.

Continuum, a design firm, had consultants spend time watching mop users in their homes. They stood in corners and observed as people lugged around soppy mops and spilling water buckets. They thought about what they could design that would serve the same purpose but be more efficient and make the users life easier. And after hundreds of hours of observing and iterating, the Swiffer was born.

You might be thinking that this approach makes sense when designing products, but how does that translate into anything outside user experience? IDEO and Marie Stopes International teamed up to take design thinking and apply it to educating young women on sexual and reproductive health. They realized that instead of trying to do outreach on their terms – teaching classes in schools or in health clinics, where they were normally done – they needed to understand what would be most accessible to the youth they were trying to reach. They created pop-up nail salons and teen speak-easies that were fun and unthreatening, training college-aged women on how to be sexual and reproductive health teachers and advocates to the teens who came to these facilities.

So how do you translate this into a human-centered approach to leadership? The above are tangible examples of taking a human-centered approach, but hopefully they illustrate what the concept means as we begin to move into the more abstract – human-centered thinking as a day-to-day skill and quality of the modern leader.

Taking a human-centered approach requires engaging a toolkit of soft leadership skills, including deep listening, empathy, curiosity, and openness. It is about recognizing the potential of every person that you interact with and engaging with them as a thought partner who has intrinsic value.  When you are thinking about developing your leadership philosophy and practice – think about the people who you touch, who are around you – how do you interact with them? Are they at the core of your decision making?

By using a human-centered approach as the core of your leadership philosophy, you are developing yourself as a leader who is accessible, who celebrates diversity in people and thoughts, who welcomes opposing viewpoints and is flexible and open to change, and who respects and values every person who you interact with. It is leaders who engage in this type of thinking who will be able to shape the emerging future.

Practice a human-centered approach: Clear your mind, open your heart, and be intentionally and mindfully present with each person you interact with today. When you catch yourself making judgments, dismissing people, or going through your regular motions, remind yourself that you are practicing your human-centeredness today.