A dear friend and mentor once told me, “Being a manager is easy: you make decisions. If you make a bad decision, you correct it with another one. If you make too many bad decisions, you’re in the wrong job.”

He later went on to explain that, “…how you see the issue determines how you’ll deal with it. See it as it is, not as how you want it to be.” I later came to understand that if you resolve the wrong issue (the one you want versus the one that is), you end up worse off. Much worse. You’ve still got the original issue that you did not resolve, in addition to whatever mess you created by implementing a flawed or inappropriate decision.

Context matters. It matters because context is a composite of the circumstances that form the setting for an event, statement, issue, or idea, and it “speaks” in terms of which it can be fully understood and assessed. In other words, context determines the meaning of things. And the meaning of things determines how we go about addressing them.

It makes sense to begin with understanding the context of a situation. One way to evaluate context is to think of it on a continuum of order to disorder; from simple to chaotic.

Context Characteristics Leader’s Job Domain
Simple Stability and clear cause-and-effect relationships that are easily discernible by everyone. The “right answer” is often evident and undisputed. The realm of “known knowns.” Example: loan payment processing Straightforward management and monitoring. Assess the facts of the situation, categorize them, and base response on established practice. Best practices
Complicated More than one right answer is possible. Cause and effect are discoverable but not clear to everyone. The realm of “known unknowns.” Example: automobile engine making strange knocking noises Good practice trumps best practice because it may involve complicated analysis and understanding of consequences at multiple levels. Seek expertise. Listen well to conflicting advice. Experts
Complex Unpredictability and flux. No right answers; emergent instructive patterns. We only understand why things happened in retrospect. The whole is far more than the sum of its parts. The realm of “unknown unknowns.” Example: tropical rain forest Probe for patterns: conduct experiments that are safe to fail. Rather than imposing a course of action, allow patterns to emerge to reveal the path forward. Increase conversation and interaction. Emergence (patterns)
Chaotic Pointless to search for the right answer. High turbulence. Relationships between cause and effect are impossible to determine. Many decisions to make and no time to think. The realm of “unknowables.” Example: September 11, 2001 Act to establish order, then sense where stability is present or absent, and respond by working to transform the issue from chaos to complexity. Rapid response

Adapted from The Cynefin Framework (David Snowden & Mary Boone), Harvard Business Review

Imagine a business with a complex problem (for example: their marketplace is restructuring itself due to massive economic upheaval. Very little is as it was and no one knows yet what will be.) trying to resolve it and make decisions by looking to “best practices” from their past?

So when faced with an issue, a problem to solve, or a decision to make, begin with understanding its context. It’s that simple… or complicated… or complex… or chaotic.

 In Other Words…

“It’s funny how humans can wrap their mind around things and fit them into their version of reality.” ― Rick Riordan, The Lightning Thief

“Most men would rather deny a hard truth than face it.” ― George R.R. Martin, A Game of Thrones

“Excellence is never an accident. It is always the result of high intention, sincere effort, and intelligent execution; it represents the wise choice of many alternatives – choice, not chance, determines your destiny.” ― Aristotle

“Facts do not cease to exist because they are ignored” ― Aldous Huxley

“It turns out that an eerie type of chaos can lurk just behind a facade of order – and yet, deep inside the chaos lurks an even eerier type of order.” ― Douglas R. Hofstadter, Metamagical Themas: Questing For The Essence Of Mind And Pattern

“The propitious smiles of heaven can never be expected on a nation that disregard the eternal rules of order and right which Heaven itself has ordained.” ― George Washington, Inaugural address 1789

“My mother’s menu consisted of two choices: Take it or leave it.” ― Buddy Hackett

In The Word…

“Does not wisdom call? Does not understanding raise her voice?” – Proverbs 8:1