Helping People Be Their Best is Complex (not Complicated!)

Mark Upton
May 13, 2015

The I recently had an interesting conversation with a gentleman (let’s call him Paul) who has many years of experience in a leadership role with an iconic global company. The conversation sparked reflections on learning and performance of people. What makes Paul’s story intriguing is that the company he worked for manufactures products and relies on a strong engineering skill-set. Did they also take an engineering approach to managing the learning and performance of their people? Happily, based on the following examples, it seems they did not.

The first example Paul gave was being trusted and given the freedom to take ownership of his role by those “above”. They resisted the urge to micro-manage and measure his performance in great detail (a classic engineering approach). Paul described the positive feelings this generated and the subsequent benefit to his performance. Only late in his career did this micro-management invade his environment, partially leading to a decision to move on.

The second example he shared concerned the tremendous growth/learning he experienced through being mentored. He explicitly talked about having a “safe” environment to converse on any range of topics/problems/decisions that were on his mind. This mentoring relationship was paid for by the company and was ultimately about improving his performance, but there were no specific targets, measures, development plans, timelines etc attached to the mentoring process. Yet Paul described it as the most impactful developmental process he has undertaken.

The key message here is understanding how learning and performance of PEOPLE can be managed/facilitated in different ways. Assisted by the growth in technology and data, an increasing trend is to take an engineering approach. This implicitly frames the process as “complicated”, when in fact the learning/performance of one or multiple people is almost always “complex”. This distinction between “complicated” and “complex” is critical and seems to be one Paul’s company were attuned to (despite their core business being very much engineering based). John Kiely provides further insight…

A machine may be an intricately engineered marvel of human ingenuity; may be fabricated from the most resilient materials; assembled from precision engineered inter-locking parts, each methodically fulfilling its tightly specified role.

We, on the other hand, come in all shapes and sizes; even changing shape as life progresses. Yet, even though Nature has no mechanism for precisely replicating component parts; despite ill-fitting moving parts; we seem to fit together ok. We can survive the loss of component parts; we can continue our lives even after areas of the brain have been damaged or removed.

In fact, no dimension of our biology resembles machine-like behaviour. Unlike machines we constantly modify aspects of function — dispersing stress, sharing workloads — in response to changing life demands.

So there is a distinction to be drawn between ‘complicated’ and ‘complex’ systems.

Complicated machine-like systems typically follow one path to achieve a specific end, and as such are highly predictable; but also highly vulnerable. Complex systems achieve their objectives through a process of exploration and on-going adaptation; negotiating obstacles, solving problems through trial-and-error, and flexibly adapting to changing circumstances.

(for further insights into complicated, complex and other systems check out Dave Snowden’s work and the Cynefin framework)

Turning our attention to sport & the environments being created, we are seeing this engineering approach permeating the “elite” world of adult high performance as well as (more worryingly) talent development, youth and child participation. Rather than the descriptors associated with the positive experiences mentioned by Paul and thoughts from John Kiely (“safe to fail”, “mentoring”, “ownership”, “trust”, “exploration”, “solving problems”), it is becoming more common to observe environments and behaviour reflective of “measurement”, “control”, “fear”, “accountability”, “production lines”, “asset management”, “reporting”, and “benchmarking”.

As a result, we believe the learning, growth and potential of people in sport is being stifled. Drawing from complexity principles, we believe individuals, teams, clubs and sporting organisations can take a different path and emerge far better for it.

These beliefs link to our purpose — to help people be their best.