Lean Transformations Group

Hard Lessons from COVID-19 As We Become More Comfortable Working with Complexity

Right now, we are all tuned into the spread of Coronavirus and its impact on the global stage. We are watching the growth of the virus and how countries, like Italy, are responding with drastic measures with large scale “lockdowns”. There, the government is demanding all people stay in their homes to prevent contact with others to minimize the spread.

In my recent article, “The Modern Leader Creates the Conditions for a Problem Solving Culture,” I have written that our world of today is a complex adaptive system where change is not linear and the system cannot be controlled. Both the Coronavirus and your organizational culture live in that world.

The fundamental characteristics of a complex adaptive system are the same for the spread of a virus and your organization. If leaders intend to create a new culture—one that engages the entire organization in making significant performance improvements—then leaders need to understand the basic characteristics of complex adaptive systems. They can then guide their team members in an organizational transformation using the CAS mindset versus the static command and control mindset.

What are some of the lessons we can learn from COVID-19?

Let’s talk about how the virus has spread. The spread and growth of the Coronavirus all started with a single interaction between two entities. When the first person contracted the virus and then made contact with another person, it was game on. Then, they both made more contacts with others, and then others etc. The spread of the virus is not a linear progression. 1+1 does not equal 2. Medical professionals believe that one person with the virus can give it to 45 people - a multiplication factor of 45.

So, growth is not linear, it is exponential (at least during the early phases).

Another characteristic here is emergence, which can be identified by new patterns that come about as a result of the individual interactions and exponential growth. For the Coronavirus, the common pattern across the globe is to apply new rules to prevent or slow down the spread, country by country. The fundamental strategy is to limit the growth through social distancing. Social distancing is an attempt to keep people from interacting with each other. Large events, schools, airplanes, and cruise ships have been minimized in size or canceled. Travel from countries with high growth rates are being limited. People are being asked to keep a reasonable distance from others and be conscious of contact. What does this tell us?

Exponential growth does not go on forever, and there are limits to growth which will slow down and stop growth. 

In addition to social distancing, there are personal habits being recommended to limit transmission. We are all being asked to frequently wash our hands, use disinfectants, and stop touching our faces. Medical scientists are working diligently on other ways to limit the growth through developing new antibodies, drugs, and vaccines. There may also be a natural limit to growth: the flu season. But we currently are not sure if and when this will happen with this virus.

In short, we must pay attention to our personal habits and behaviors and remember what is in our own individual power to control. We cannot control everything, but our personal behaviors have an effect on the entire system.

Complex Adaptive Systems in the Workplace

You may be getting an idea now of the lessons here for leadership. We can learn from the Coronavirus. But instead of slowing down or stopping growth, your goal is likely to accelerate and encourage growth. So first, instead of thinking about rolling out a new program or initiative, think in terms of planting the seeds for new habits and let those seeds grow. Recognize that if properly established, the new learning will grow on its own.

In my recent article on creating problem solving cultures, I described three new habits you want to grow.

1) a standard problem solving process,

2) respectful communication, and

3) learning how to learn.

With consistent focus on these three habits, you can create new effective patterns of problem solving in your organization. Apply these new habits through a mindset of complex adaptive systems thinking. Create the initial interaction by identifying a simple business problem to solve. Engage a small group of people and begin the problem solving process. Then, pay attention to the personal, individual interactions. Instead of social distancing, think of social integration. Make sure you model respectful communications and maximize the time people have to interact meaningfully. Assist and support the growth of the social interactions. The conditions for respectful communications need to be in place so that the people will see the value of listening to others for learning. Take advantage of the natural processes of exponential growth and emergence. Then, bring teams of people who are leading with all of these new habits together to keep learning from each other.

Your organization and growth of learning will also have its own limits to growth. The best way to overcome the possibility of slowing down natural growth is to expect daily, weekly, and monthly learning cycles. Inside the PDCA (Plan, Do, Check, Act/Adjust) learning process, reflection is key to preventing a slowdown by asking your colleagues at each reflection session: What is a countermeasure you can put into place to overcome the limiting factors and accelerate our learning?

Your role as the leader is to create this experiment, somewhere in a small part of your organization. See if you can create the kind of growth that we are observing with the Coronavirus. Take advantage of this window into how natural social systems work and complexity theory. Let your own problem solving behaviors and learning behaviors grow, don’t attempt to create rules and procedures to force compliance.

This is an extremely difficult time for many, and there are lessons to learn about how growth happens naturally.


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