This past month, I have been witness to or part of many complex conversations and situations as a facilitator, as a leader, as a parent, as a community member. My experiences align with all the research and practice evidence that warns us that the pace and scale of complexity is increasing. Our team, organization and human system situations seem to be getting too difficult, too unwieldy, and almost unsolvable. And I have felt exhausted trying to make sense of and work with it all.

The Pains of Transformation

My tendency is typically to push past any sort of discomfort in my work and practice, including the exhaustion of the past month, and to keep thinking and looking for possibilities and next steps. After all, the focus of my practice is to Uncover Possibilities and Ignite Transformation. At some point this month through, I remembered that the reality of transformation and all developmental progression is that it is not necessarily pain-free. I gave in to my exhaustion and contemplated what I needed to reflect on and learn from it. I reconnected to the fact that:

Transformation is necessarily a process that includes some pain. Caterpillars don’t just become butterflies. Babies don’t just arrive at our doorsteps fully ready for life. We did not just become the adult professionals that we are overnight. And our teams and organizations do not just become productive, high-performing and thriving systems. Each requires a process, careful nurturing and dedicated focus over time to arrive at the celebrated end at the other side of a transformational process. Yet, my observations in practice this month showed that we are far from willing to take the time and effort needed to truly invest in the transformational ends we desire for our organizations. We are blinded by short-term results and shortcuts.

Shortcuts to organizational outcomes are more painful than the pain of a truly transformational process. Go ahead, count the cost. You know this to be so even without me showing you the numbers. Think of all the re-work, retrofitting, renovating, restoring and recruitment – all the re-doing that is needed every day in our organizations to recover from quick wins and quick results. What if all that energy went towards working for transformation in the first place?

So what holds us back from doing what is needed?

The Paradoxes of Complexity

I believe what holds us back from taking the long road to sustained transformation in organizations is the inherent contradictions and paradoxes of complexity:

The way forward in complex situations is often simple. The tendency I see with leaders and groups is to spend inordinate amounts of time analyzing their complexities, yet making no decision and taking no actions as they look for the right answer, because the consequences of a wrong answer may be too dire. This of course is predicated on a false assumption. The assumption that complex situations require complex and complicated solutions. Eventually, someone in authority gets tired of the wait and calls the shots to an often untested solution that then takes immeasurable time, resources and human toll to implement, and often continues long after everyone knows it won’t work. The paradox here is that what I have seen from my experience and the evidence is that in complexity, the best way forward is to look for the next wise action, to take adaptive action, to innovate and experiment in rapid cycles – to unleash the creative potential of people to try what they believe works, to fail, to learn and ultimately to succeed in doing what no one else has done before. That is how we learn, grow and achieve advancement in our organizations and in our human potential. Yet, we ignore this precedent time and again in our organizations.

The energy for transformation lies within the differences in the system. The hardest part of complexity is the different opinions, the different views, the different people, the differences. They are hard, they are political, they are scary. The paradox is that it is in those differences that creativity for change lies. As Glenda Eoyang teaches us, what’s needed is to search for the differences that makes the differences. So, in complexity, gong toward differences rather than away from them is what’s needed, to search for the creative tension that will unlock a way forward.

The structures needed for organizational transformation do not yet fully exist. In all of the complex situations I have been in lately, I have been struck by this fact – we are in the liminal space between the 20th century traditional structures and systems that currently exist and the 21st century transformational structures and systems for the future we know is needed. This is the grey zone* I have previously written about that requires mastery in practice. Mastery in bringing a transformational facilitation mindset to bear within traditional structures and systems. The capacity to hold the significant tensions and strains this presents on behalf of the system is required in this transitional state. And it can be an exhausting role to hold in the process and path to transformation.

The Promise

The question is, is the pain and holding of the paradoxes worth it? Let’s ask the opposite question, what is the cost of continuing with the way things are? In their newest book, Kegan and Lahey** show us yet again how leaders and organizations who dare to do differently, who take the long high road to developing deeply developmental organizations achieve their business goals exceptionally, while also supporting unlimited human potential. That is the only answer to achieving transformation in the complexity of our times.

*Gilpin-Jackson, Y. (2013). Practicing in the grey area between dialogic and diagnostic organization development. Organization Development Practitioner, 45(1), 60-66.

**Kegan, R. & Lahey, L.L. (2016). An everyone culture: Becoming a deliberately developmental organization. Boston, Massachusetts: Harvard Business Review Press