Interview with Henrik Kniberg about Leading Complexity

View the video at our LinkedIn post.

Hello Henrik Kniberg. It’s very nice to have you in the Leading complexity program. For those that don’t know you, how would you introduce yourself?

I’m a Swedish dude who is a coach and a software developer. I have worked at Spotify, Lego, and Mojang. I had a mix of roles but overall just helped companies to improve. For the past three years, I have worked as a Minecraft developer. I like to jam, and play music. I have a family with four kids. 

This program will be about Leading Complexity. Why do you think leadership cares about complexity?

Well, people are complex and groups of people are even more complex. If you happen to be a leader you are leading people so complexity is in your face. If you understand complexity you’re probably going to be a better leader. If you work in a context of product development and especially innovative product development it lays another level of complexity on top of it. So complexity is your friend. Learn to deal with it and you will be happier.

What are the biggest challenges for leaders facing complexity?

I would say the biggest challenge is the addiction to predictability. It’s so comfortable to pretend that everything is the way it is and we are gonna predict them – make a plan and then follow the plan. And hold people accountable to the plan. But in a complex world, that does not really work. It’s a challenge to get over that as a leader but also help the people you are leading to get over that and instead see it as: “We have a goal and we have a plan but the goal is what matters.”. The plan can change and you as a team are empowered to change the plan as needed. It’s just a whole different mindset and it can be hard to get used to. 

Any key messages to leaders navigating in complexity?

Maybe be courageous and ready to be out of control. In a world of complexity you can´t be making all the decisions – they will not be good decisions. Trust people to make decisions, sometimes without informing you. That’s scary but something you need to get over. Trading the kind of control that you have in a non complex environment with the kind of control you have in a complex environment – that is feedback loops. You create an environment where there are feedback loops everywhere and where developers are in contact with the customer directly. Then you’re enabling the whole organization to have control and you as an individual can let go of some control. That could sometimes feel scary.

What about having project managers just answering that everything is “green”. Is that not enough?

Sometimes things are not green and a big part of dealing with complexity is adapting to things when you run into trouble. So you want teams that are super transparent that they are in trouble and need help. By being super transparent with that they are more willing to ask for help and other teams will be more willing to offer help.

It’s like watermelon figures. Green on the outside but red on the inside.

Yes, in some organizations teams that are flagging red get a hard time. A “what did you do wrong” kind of thing. There needs to be a mindset of “how can we help and what can we learn from it so it does not happen again”. 

On a meta-level: if you have an organization that is promoting predictability and promoting “we want green lights all the time” – that will make people scared and conservative. Nobody will take risks, no one will try new cool products and only do things they have always done and work the way they have always done. You don´t get continuous improvement, you don´t get innovation. That basically means that whenever a competitor shows up you are in trouble. 

What will the participants bring with them when they are leaving your session?

I will be talking about this “thing” that people call the Spotify model and a little bit about the background. What made this thing become so viral and what are the important messages behind it that were lost in all the hype? Some personal reflections around that. Hopefully what people will take away from the session is a better understanding of it. What are some things that we can learn from that story, not from the company Spotify but from companies that have similar cases and avoid falling into the trap of being overly religious about things? That typical case was not supposed to be a framework, it was just a case study. But there were a couple of lessons in there which got lost. 

Thank you very much

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