Interview with Esther Derby – A Leader in Navigating Complexity

In the interview, Esther Derby discusses complexity in organizations, contrasting it with a mechanistic approach. She likens it to creating conditions for a forest to emerge rather than controlling a factory’s output. Derby emphasizes different leadership skills required for various roles within an organization: setting macro-level conditions for senior leaders, enhancing conditions for enabling roles, and attending to team conditions for those doing the work.

She previews her upcoming session in the Leading Complexity program, focusing on understanding complexity from different organizational perspectives, creating conditions for good work, and developing specific leadership skills for leading in complexity. Derby acknowledges that while it may sound easy, it requires a different way of seeing, being aware, and acting, often more indirectly than traditional leadership approaches.

Join our Leading Complexity Program to learn more from Esther and how to lead in complexity. Sign up here.


Tomas: Welcome to this video! With me today I have Esther Derby, and we are very happy to have you in the Leading Complexity program this year. Welcome to the program, Esther!

Esther Derby: Thank you! I’m super happy that you invited me. It’s a topic I care a lot about, and it’s nice to be invited.

Tomas: We’re so happy that you said yes. Since you like this topic very much about complexity, could you explain complexity to the audience?

Esther Derby: I’m going to come at it through a contrast. We have a history in Western business of thinking of things in a very mechanistic way, right? Very deterministic and mechanistic. While that is an appropriate model in certain situations, in real life, things are not deterministic. You know, there are multiple entwined causes for everything, and we cannot determine what is going to happen. We can only create the conditions for something useful to emerge. So, I think it’s the contrast between a factory and a forest. You can build a factory to have a particular output. When you’re creating a forest, you cannot predict exactly what it’s going to be like, but you can pay close attention to the conditions that exist and shape those conditions so that something is likely to emerge. Ah, so kind of creating the environment you can’t control but you can help.

Tomas: Yes, you can certainly influence but not control. The program is called Leading Complexity, and this could be interpreted in different ways. For instance, it could be like, how can you be thriving in a complex environment, which most of the companies today are living in. But it could also be about how you could be a leader in a complex environment. How would you interpret it, and do you have any special advice?

Esther Derby: Well, I think for leaders in complexity, there’s a different set of skills we need to attend to. And so, that’s what I often talk about when I talk about leading in complexity—what are the things we need to attend to and what are the skills we need to have in order to appropriately attend to those. What you attend to is different depending on where you are in the organization, what your role is in the organization. So, if you’re in a senior role, you know, you’re attending to the macro level, setting conditions for the organization. You know, who are our customers? What’s the relationship we want to have with our customers? What behaviors broadly are acceptable, and which ones won’t be tolerated? How do we maintain fiscal responsibility? These very broad things. What direction are we going in? What problem are we solving for what group of people? If you’re in what I think about as the sort of an enabling or enhancing role, then your concerns are very different, right? Because you’re living within this set of conditions, and your job then is to create the conditions where people and teams can create great products and do great work. And looking at the system, some of which some parts of which might be linear, to enhance the ability to provide great services and products. And if you’re doing the work, then you need to be attending to the condition for your team, right? And what are the environment like within your team? You know, what’s our information environment like? What’s our safety environment like? What’s our social environment like? Is there anything in the physical environment we could shift?

Tomas: Interesting! So, your session will be on November 7th, which is quite far in the future; it already feels that way now.

Esther Derby: Yes, many things can change, but can you give us some sort of tips about what it will be about and what we can bring with us from it?

We’re going to explore what complexity looks like from different vantage points in the organization, what you can do to create the conditions for good work to happen because performance is an emergent property of the people in their environment. We’re going to look at the specific skills that you might want to develop in order to lead in that sort of situation—to lead where you’re not necessarily directing people but you’re setting a direction and creating the constraints so people can self-organize.

Tomas: It sounds easy, but I guess it’s much harder than it sounds.

Esther Derby: For everyone, everything’s easy when you know how to do it, and nothing’s easy when you don’t. I don’t think there’s anything particularly hugely difficult in it, but it’s a different way of seeing, it’s a different way of being aware, and it’s a different way of acting. It’s often more indirect than many people in leadership positions are used to.

Tomas: Yeah, and since I’ve taken at least two classes with you, I must say that if anyone is able to tell how to do this in a simple and easy way, I think it’s you. You have a lot of experience from it. So, for everyone listening to this, please participate, come and listen to Esther on November 7th.

Join our Leading Complexity Program to learn more from Esther and how to lead in complexity. Sign up here.

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