MaST Business Forum - Why do leaders struggle to solve complex business challenges? - Summary

MaST Business Forum - Why do leaders struggle to solve complex business challenges? - Summary

2nd March 2016


The latest MaST Forum provided senior managers and L&D executives the time and space to consider the type of problems that leaders face today, especially the most demanding of all - complexity.  Delegates discussed the kind of leadership needed to work effectively in different problem spaces.


What are the different types of problems?


Mark Hawkswell took the delegates through the various categories of problems that leaders face and he used David Snowden’s Cynefin model as the framework.  Leaders are faced with four types of problems: simple, complicated, chaotic and complex.


In the simple problem space, the problems are clear to all and people know what is required.  It is a case of categorising issues.  In the complicated space, the problem is understood by most, but organisations rely on experts to provide a solution.  It’s about analysis.  In the chaotic space, the problem and solutions are not immediately obvious.  It’s all about steadying the ship when faced with hurricane winds.  Lastly, the complex space, which is where the Forum focused, is where the problem and solution are unknown to everybody in the system. In this space, the only way to solve problems is by feeling your way as you go along, through a continual process of testing and learning or experimenting and discovering.


How do leaders approach the complex space?


Leaders have cut their teeth by being experts solving problems in the complicated space, hence the tendency to hire technical experts for leadership positions.  The challenge is that many of the leadership skills that work in the simple and complicated space do not work in the complex space and it is complex problems that most leaders are now increasingly facing.


Leading in the complex space - The 3S Model: State, Synergy and Systems Thinking


The MaST consultants shared their 3S model, which was co-developed with one of our specialist partners Judy Rees, and is designed to help leaders work effectively in the complex space.


How do leaders manage their state?


Complexity is characterised by two elements that leaders hate: ambiguity and uncertainty.  So to work effectively, managers need to maintain a resourceful state when facing problems whose solutions do not conform to traditional cause-effect analysis.  Sally Kleyn took the delegates through a powerful process to explore the metaphors that delegates hold when they think about working with complex problems.  Metaphors are a window into our thinking and can make the experience of complexity miserable or exhilarating, for example: herding cats; riding a rollercoaster; being on a runaway train; being at a crossroads; drifting in a hot air balloon.  Delegates ended up developing a new metaphor that they can use to be more resourceful and curious when facing their next complex challenge.  This was extremely well received and was the main course served on the day.


Go for the most diverse group possible - Synergy


Mark Mercer then gave the group a high level overview of the importance of synergy.  To develop synergy, groups need to develop both the willingness and capability to collaborate.  Willingness emerges from the co-creation of a purpose and values driven community with common standards for interacting and thinking together.  High priority values for the more effective groups include ‘bold ambition’, ‘community’, ‘collaboration’, ‘learning’, and ‘mutual accountability’, as well as mutual respect, trust and influence.  Synergistic thinking was developed by people questioning everything, being data driven and seeing the whole system.  Capability is supported by developing creative abrasion around differences, rather than destructive conflict; learning through experimentation, reflection for learning and adjustment.  The final core capability is the capacity to work with opposites and look for ways to integrate insights from both.


It’s about how we think - Systems Thinking


Lastly, Mark Hawkswell took the group through a process of looking at a complex system through systems thinking.  Delegates were asked to look at one of their own problems and to consider the system dynamics at play. Delegates were asked to first understand the problem and resist the temptation to solve it.  We are not in a position to test and learn until we have a more thorough and pervasive understanding of the issues faced.


Should you wish to discuss any of these areas in more detail please do call on 0800 316 9090, email or visit