I wrote two weeks back about Complex Adaptive Systems (CAS) and the benefit of models such as Cynefin and the Theory of Constraints for being able to understand them. What I didn’t focus on in that article was how important the people element is when dealing with CAS. Two HBR articles published this week reminded me of that critical ingredient.
Amy C. Edmondson, who has literally written the book on psychological safety (The Fearless Organization), wrote about the culture at Boeing which enabled the 737 Max issues to fester for a long time before they tragically became mainstream news. In her article, Amy lists three contributing factors including:
- A visible obsession with speed to market or cost control discouraging staff from speaking up about potential quality or safety concerns
- Subject matter experts (SMEs) who remain silent during key meetings rather than raising concerns
- A culture of “yes-men/women”
In the same week, Ryan Gottfredson and Chris Reina, wrote about the importance of leaders having the right mindset. Going beyond the well known Growth vs. Fixed mindset model, they covered three other mindset pairs:
- Learning vs. Performance
- Deliberative vs. Implemental
- Promotion vs. Prevention
Out of these three, the middle one is apropos. According to Ryan and Chris: “Leaders with a deliberative mindset have a heightened receptiveness to all kinds of information as a way to ensure that they think and act as optimally as possible… Comparing the two, leaders with deliberative mindsets tend to make better decisions because they are more impartial, more accurate, and less biased in their processing and decision making.”
This aligns well with two of the leadership actions which Amy recommends in her article. Leaders need to insist on input by explicitly soliciting feedback and by responding productively to concerns raised by staff.
So what does this have to do with CAS?
Most of you would probably agree that a modern jetliner is complex system given the large number of interdependent software and hardware components which all need to work effectively together under a wide range of physical operating conditions. While it is possible to build solutions in which complexity won’t increase non-linearly as the size increases, this requires significant, sustained commitment to good architectural principles with an appropriate balance between quality and other delivery constraints.
When faced with a CAS, psychological safety within a delivery team is more important than with simple or complicated systems as there is a higher likelihood of things not going as expected which drives a greater need for legitimate transparency and candor.