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21st Century Leadership: Dealing with Complexity

I’m finally getting around to sharing a few highlights from our conference session this week at the Nonprofit Conference.  It was a pleasure working with Amanda, who knows how to keep a presentation lively.  We enjoyed preparing for the workshop, trading new insights on where leadership is headed.  I had the fun of talking about trends affecting nonprofit leadership:  increasing complexity, emphasis on collaboration, generational shift, shift toward authenticity, talent crisis/leadership succession.  As you can imagine, there is lots to say about each of these areas, so I should have plenty of blog fodder for some time to come.  Below, my thoughts on the challenge of exponentially increasing complexity.

Complexity is the first trend we talked about in our session.  I think most of us share the feeling that our world is getting more complicated by the minute.   On a personal, individual level, we are faced with information overload (one issue of the New York Times is estimated to contain more info than a person was exposed to in a lifetime before 1900).  This overload exists for us in the nonprofit sector—with 6 new nonprofits founded every week in Washington State, who can keep up?

At the same time, corporations have devolved many services to the individual:  we are now responsible for conducting our own banking, financial investing, healthcare advocacy, cashiering groceries and many other tasks formerly provided to us by others.  This greatly expanded list of activities of daily living (ADLs, as they are called in the social service world) takes a lot of bandwidth!

At the organizational level, similar changes are taking place.  Nonprofit “ADLs” now include management of multiple, restricted funding streams, documentation of outcomes, risk management, and messaging and establishing a consistent brand identity.

Many of the social issues the nonprofit sector is working to address are complex, boundary-crossing and intertwined (global warming and poverty being two examples of complex challenges).  These challenges are more difficult and time-consuming to solve, and require varied perspectives and types of expertise to tackle.  At the same time, global interdependence and reduced relevance of geographical boundaries are placing new demands on formerly localized nonprofit service providers.

A final challenge associated with the growing complexity of our world is knowledge management.  How do we appropriately share and utilize information within and outside of our organizations?  Given the overwhelming volume of information available to us, how do we keep up, and how do we filter the information to find what is most pertinent to us achieving our mission?

Here are some recommended responses:

  • make space for reflection, synthesis and sensemaking activities (as individuals and groups)
  • explore how new technology can assist us in organizing information in ways that are accessible to our own organizational leaders and key partners in the field
  • resist doing everything ourselves, and establish relationships with trusted providers of supportive services (e.g. tech support, investing, benefits administration) so that we don’t have to know it all
  • adopt a non-territorial, “open source” approach to information, sharing effective practices freely so that their positive social benefit can be maximized
  • Collaborate and build strong networks
  • Shift your thinking from “institutional advancement”—improving your own organization’s standing—to a focus on advancing your field
  • Breathe!

2 Responses to 21st Century Leadership: Dealing with Complexity

  1. Thanks for the helpful synopsis of (part of)what you and Amanda covered – I was sorry to miss your workshop! I particularly support the notion that increasing complexity requires more time for reflection and rejuvenation. I strongly believe that this is the critical ingredient to resilience, another important tool for thriving in a complex world.

  2. Laura,

    I’m really resonating with your blog – I’m a director at a non-profit and I’m finding many of the same challenges that you are outlining here. The issue of complexity is really at the heart of the challenges going forward. In addition to the elements of complexity you cite here, some non-profits are also facing the complexity of globalization. We are all competing for resources that are now being sought after for assistance around the world. On the positive side, but it does present challenges, we are blessed with a workforce and an audience that is increasing complex. Through improved communications, travel networks and virtual enterprises, we are dealing with a global workforce and audience.

    Thanks for your thoughts,David