Sonja Blignaut – Leading in Complexity by Curating Context

Throughout the Leading Complexity program, we have had the opportunity to learn from the best thinkers in leadership and complexity. One of them Sonja Blignaut. As a meteorologist, she has a fascinating natural sciences background, giving her a unique perspective on human systems.

In her session, she shared some of her latest thinking, which she also draws from many fields, including sports coaching, indigenous wayfinding, and more. Here is a summary of her session.

1. What is needed to be Leading in Complexity?

Complexity requires a different way of seeing the world.” 

Sonja starts by reminding us that we have all experienced of complexity in our own lives. As humans, we are complex; our bodies, our families, our work, and the cities where we live are complex. We tend to get stuck in abstract knowledge about complexity instead of going to our embodied lived experience, or our knowledge of complexity. It is like thinking we can cook just after reading a recipe without trying to cook.  We forget that we actually know a lot about complexity, and our abstract thinking about complexity makes us get stuck. 

Another trap is seeing leadership as a “thing” seated in an individual. Leading in complexity is a dynamic process that we are all part of in some way.  Sometimes leading, other times following as we find our way through complexity.

“Leading in complexity is about creating the conditions for messy, real-world collective wayfinding.”

Leading in complexity, is not only for business leaders. Our context is now so messy, that everyone needs to have a basic understanding of complexity and how to navigate it. Or, as Sonja refers to it: engage in Collective Wayfinding. 

“Wayfinding is not knowing before you go. It is learning as you go” – Tim Ingold. However, having to learn or know as you go implies that there will be a lot of uncertainty, which in turn means potential anxiety. A very common emotion in today’s organizations. So, “leading in complexity requires containing anxiety and turning it into creative energy.” 

Leaders can contain anxiety by curating spaces where people can be open, vulnerable and issues can be spoken about. This involves self-awareness i.e. containing your own anxiety and not reacting when you are triggered, as well as situational awareness to create safe spaces for others.

The difference between leading in an ordered environment and a complex one is that you can tell people what to do in an ordered space. i.e. lead in a directive way. However, this doesn´t work in complexity.  Like a gardener can’t tell plants to grow, they create the conditions for them to grow, leaders design or curate an environment where people have agency and autonomy – where they can learn, decide, and take action. 

Curating such a context requires working with constraints and affordances. Constraints or boundaries provide safety and help limit options; affordances (or invitations for actions) provide options to explore.  By creating bounded option landscapes, leaders enable self-organization within safe boundaries.  

2. Skills for leading in complexity.

Complexity Fit Leadership starts with being cool yourself.” 

Complexity fitness has dual meanings … one is having the skills or capacity to navigate complexity. The other is being “fit” or adapted to a context, like an organism is fit for its niche or living conditions. In that sense, fitness is an emergent property. It arises from our constant interaction with and adaptation to our environment. It is about gaining “knowledge of” or embodied knowledge. When you learn a new sport, you must immerse yourself in the game and explore the constraints and affordances. E.g., you cannot learn to surf without surfing.

What are the meta-skills needed to be complexity fit?  We summarize these core skills using the acronym being “COOL“. It represents Courage, Openness, Observing, and Lightness. These are not abstract concepts but skills and continuous practices. Leading in complexity starts with practicing these skills yourself. You cannot create a context for others to be COOL without being COOL yourself.

  • Practicing Courage means being curious, saying yes to the unknown, taking risks, stepping out of the way, and letting people explore. To say I don´t know, but let´s explore together (even when people expect you to know).
  • Openness is about being with Not Knowing and messiness and embracing people who see the world very differently from ourselves. It is also embracing continuous change – Learning and unlearning.
  • Observing is about getting perspectives; where can I make tweaks? Zoom in and out, inward and outward. Observing our internal and external landscapes. Letting go of our assumptions, and cultivating beginners eyes, finding new opportunities.,
  • Lightness is about reconnecting with our humanity. To play – really play! We say we play with numbers or ideas, but we don´t really play. We jump into seriousness, design, and planning. Lightness is also about humor, rest, and holding your strong opinions and ego lightly.

3. Curating Context.

A common view of modern leadership is that leaders should design the environment. Working on the system more than focusing on the individual.

Sonja refers to this as “Curating Contexts.” Curating comes from CURARE, meaning to attend to or take care of. Curation means “the science and art of selecting and arranging to enhance value.” 

In leadership, curating context means creating a “holding environment.” That is a social context that facilitates sensemaking and enables collective wayfinding. One example is creating the conditions for the popular concept of creating psychological safety. 

We are used to having certainty and order through clear structures like hierarchy, goals, and targets. This is why frameworks like SAFe are so attractive. They bring a sense of certainty and predictability. But this is no longer effective. It is a false sense of containment and security.  Instead, we need to become more flexible and be comfortable with discomfort.

4. Waysfinder Framework

So, how can we create these holding environments or safe-to-fail explore spaces? This is the purpose of Sonja’s Waysfinder framework. It is moving away from the linear A to B thinking and opening up a space for wayfinding. Some key steps are:

  1. Orientation.
    To understand the starting point. Where are we, and who are we? Not to jump into a solution but to create a realistic understanding of where we are now.
  2. Setting the direction or intent.
    Where are we going and why? Direction is not as narrow as a goal; it must be specific to help prioritize and invite action but wide enough to inspire exploration.
  3. Limits and Boundaries.
    This is working with constraints. There are two types. There are limits we cannot affect but need to know and work within. Then, there are boundaries that we put in place ourselves. Our values, who we choose to be (and not to be), and how we choose to show up. (These are containment boundaries). Together with the intent, these two constraints create a contained option field or space to safely explore. i.e., the playing field. 
  4. Resources and skills
    This is about creating an enabling environment. What are the support structures, resources, time, skills, capabilities, and mandates people need to explore effectively? 
  5. Safe to fail experiments.
    What adjacent possibilities can we explore?
    How do we learn and adapt to ensure coherence so that everyone is heading in the same direction while exploring different options?
  6. Feedback. What feedback do we need? Internal and external to remain fit and adaptive?

This framework works on individual, team, and organizational levels.

If you found this intriguing, you can find more of Sonja’s work or read our blog post on Wayfinding the complexities of hybrid work.

You can also access Sonja´s complete talk by signing up for our Leading Complexity program.

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