How Are You Dealing With The Complexity Of Your Life?

By Dave Ulrich | September 11, 2018

In the research on Leadership Code 2.0, a driving theme for effective leadership in this age of complexity is to discover simplicity. So how does this happen? 

Almost all business leaders I know feel overwhelmed with the complexities of their lives. One leader with a new executive committee job travels almost every week trying to figure out how to create corporate value from a federated company; another is heavily involved in integrating a large merger; and yet another carries enormous pressure to lead a firm-wide culture change initiative. In addition to these strategic duties, each must manage his or her department, build and update relationships on the senior team, and stay current on business trends that shape his or her industry. Even more, each maintains personal relationships with a spouse, a partner, children, and/or friends. And each has hobbies and personal interests that are often sidelined (including exercise, sports, music, faith). Each feels challenged by the never-ending tsunami of life’s demands.

Their experiences are not unique to them, nor surprising. All parts of life today are more complex from the food we eat (what, where, and how we eat), to the media we consume (literally hundreds of choices), to information we process (through the reach of the Internet).

In organizations, competitors may come from anywhere in the world through the Internet; customers have enormous choice over where they acquire products or services; employees have high work expectations around their personal and diverse lifestyles.

No wonder that our personal and organizations’ lives are more complex than ever.

Leaders who respond to a complex world with complexity will be overwhelmed. Some colleagues and I recommended that a company with 289 goals had too many priorities (duh), so they winnowed it to 70 (hmpf!); another company put on one page (with small print) their vision, mission, values, strategies, goals, and priorities (36 individual items) and proudly sent it to all 50,000 employees worldwide as their agenda for the future. We called this “concept clutter” that would lead to SPOTS (strategic plans on top shelf).

In the research on Leadership Code 2.0, a driving theme for effective leadership in this age of complexity is to discover simplicity. So how does this happen?

1. Satisfice more than optimize.

Nobel prize winner Herbert Simon encouraged satisficing to make decisions: satisficing is the idea where not everything worth doing is worth doing well; contrast that to optimizing where anything worth doing is worth doing well. A corollary is that some things are so important to do, they are worth doing poorly. The new member of the executive team wanted to form peer relationships. She learned that as the newest team member, she would not immediately become as close as those who had worked with each other for years, even decades. When she accepted that her emerging relationships were good enough for her to do her work and to positively impact the business, she went about her responsibilities. Finding simplicity through satisficing means to stop doing things that no one seems to care about, accept good enough though not perfect on the things that do matter, and calculate how much time an activity deserves and spend that time more carefully than money.

2. Bundle more than balance.

Work/life balance comes by not just managing time, allocating scarce time to the proper priorities, or by juggling multiple tasks, but by bundling work and life tasks as well. Meghan McCain said that she learned more about the subject of civics from participating in her father’s, John McCain’s, U.S. presidential campaign than from a class at school. While traveling to establish corporate value, an executive bundled work by also probing how to build her department for the future. Bundling means keeping consistency in one’s values and behavior at work and at home, clustering complex demands into single activities, and managing by principles instead of isolated practices.

3. Delineate more than delegate.

To find simplicity, leaders often ask, “What can I delegate?” However, to delineate may be better: “What can I absolutely not delegate?” Then give the rest to others. In managing a complex merger, the leader had dozens of briefing books of what needed to be done. Instead of determining who to delegate to, she reviewed the books and discerned what she could notdelegate. Generally, the top non-delegate-able issues are around relationships and personal well-being. She simplified her life by working on issues only she would work on.

4. Create value for others more than self.

Prioritizing countless activities is not about what a leader can do but rather deciding which of all those activities will add the most value to someone else. The executive shaping a culture started the cultural definition with a clear understanding of what the firm wanted to be known for by key customers in the future. These identity markers in the marketplace became inviolate and shaped the primary values, behaviors, and policies inside the organization. In one instance, I affirmed to a wealthy senior leader than he could (and should) spend an enormous amount of money on seats to a World Series baseball game to take his fifteen-year-old son who was an avid fan. He called the next day to thank me for the reminder of the obvious truth that his resources should be used to create value for things that mattered most, including his relationship with his son.

5. Renew more than respond.

Inevitably, increased complexity raises demands which in turn often drain energy. Leaders facing the demands of complexity need to find ways to renew. Each person renews in different ways. One executive exercises religiously; another performs religious rituals; another hibernates from electronic media; another engages regularly in hobbies; and another participates in mindfulness activities. The executive traveling to create a more holistic company added an occasional day to the trip to spend time with her spouse. Personal renewal not only helps the leader as an individual but frees emotional and intellectual space to approach the inevitable work demands; and doing so also models to others to do the same, perpetuating an environment of renewal and reengagement.

Burnout, hyper-stress, physical ailments, and emotional disorders are increasing challenges of this generation as companies are expecting employees to continue to do more in a complex world (see great work by Jeffrey Pfeffer, Dying For a Paycheck: How Modern Management Harms Employee Health and Company Performance—and What We Can Do About It).

Ultimately, creating simplicity in complexity by satisficing, bundling, delineating, creating value, and renewing enables leaders to find relief, recalibrate, and succeed.

So how have you made your complex life simpler?

To learn more about The RBL Group's Leadership Development Practice, please click here.

Dave has published over 30 books on leadership, organization, and human resources. These ideas have shaped how people and organizations deliver value to customers, investors, and communities. He has consulted and done research with over half of the Fortune 200 and worked in over 80 countries.  He has received numerous public recognitions and lifetime awards for his work. 

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