Life is complex: an ever-changing tangle of joy and pain, failure and success, beauty and despair. Sometimes it sucks, like watching your mother fade away into dementia, or losing a beloved dog. Sometimes it is so beautiful it brings you to tears, like dancing with soul friends under a sky set aflame.

These last three years have brought a different perspective on complexity — a lived experience of “the full catastrophe”. While I am even more convinced of the need to make the wisdom of complexity available more broadly, I am increasingly frustrated by how we "mystify" it with big words and theoretical constructs.

Complexity is not new. And it’s not something separate from our lives. We all already know how to be in, and navigate complexity.  We also have a uniquely human ability to create pockets of order and predictability. And while this has led to incredible progress, our love affair with certainty and control has become a trap. Now, the challenges of our times invite us to reconsider, to reframe our learned dislike for complexity and reconnect with our innate ability to be dance with it — or as Jennifer Garvey-Berger and Carolyn Caughlin calls it: our complexity genius.

The last three years has been an excellent teacher … I thought I’d share some of what I’ve learned during these exceptionally hard times.

1.    You can’t avoid complexity (and you don’t want to).

We ARE complex beings, embodied as complex organisms embedded in webs of complex relationships. We know complexity in our bones. Yes, our need for certainty, comfort and control has led us to create elaborately ordered structures that provide comfort and a measure of predictability. But we all know that raising children is not like fixing a car.

Deep down, we know there is no certainty except for continuous change.

And while there is truth to it that change is happening faster and faster, we face potentially existential challenges (like intelligent machines), and life can feel precarious … it is also true that humans are creative and adaptive; we know how to dance with emergence. Trying to opt out of the uncertainty only ends up creating more. And if everything was sure, how boring would life be?

2. Complexity is everywhere, but not everything is complex.

Think more granularly, i.e., tasks, problems or challenges I encounter (vs systems). Some tasks are routine and straightforward — I can just get on with it, e.g., if a hose pipe or tap leaks in my garden, I fix it. Some tasks are more complicated, but I can figure it out or refer to someone with expertise — like installing an irrigation system. Nurturing a garden ecosystem, raising children, navigating the death of loved ones, forming new friendships … these require learning, improvisation, experimentation and for me to show up in my full (in)glorious human complexity.

3. Mind your language.

Language helps us frame our world and make sense. New language can help us see the world differently, AND it can become a stumbling block. So, if the language and labels become hindrances, drop them. I have become increasingly aware of how our language de-animates our world. The nouns that flow from our need to name and categorise can strip out life’s essential ambiguity, nuance, and mystery. Once I label a tree as a pine or a beautiful bird as a pigeon, they disappear into familiar categories. Only suitable for logging, a pest or a nuisance. I don’t bother looking twice; I miss the beauty and potential to be more. Many opportunities for innovation are lost because we can’t see past our definitions and spot new and unexpected affordances offered by familiar objects or processes. The same happens with people and relationships — they become imprisoned in rigid categories. So, instead of labels, see if rich descriptions help — it’s not about getting it entirely right or finding a suitable category — it’s about changing our relationship to the problems and systems around us.

4. Think of yourself as always waysfinding.

In familiar places, we find our way using familiar landmarks and pathways. In unfamiliar places where others have gone before, we follow a map, a GPS or someone’s storied directions. When we are in uncharted places where no one has been before, we follow our intuition; we look for patterns; we find co-journeyers and reconnect to ancient wisdom. Ironically, sometimes the best way to perceive the new is with forms of knowledge we deem outdated or irrelevant. The key to remember here is that we are always finding our way; our context determines how we do it.

5. Keep moment(um).

Complexity (or maybe we should just call it life) is constantly changing. It is dynamic, and so we need to keep moving. We move from moment to moment, sometimes fast, sometimes slow, always taking time to pause for an ‘um’ to catch our breath. Sometimes we encounter dead-ends and need to backtrack; sometimes, we will find unexpected beauty and tarry for a while. Sometimes it might seem like we are aimlessly drifting, but that’s ok too. The key is not to get stuck for too long.

6. Getting lost is a beautiful practice.

Have you noticed how we never allow ourselves to get lost nowadays? We always have a GPS or a charted route. Yet, we all know that the best way to really experience a new place, like a city we haven’t visited before, is to go off the beaten track and get lost for a while. So, in safe environments, I try to switch off my GPS more often to allow myself to get lost, drift through the landscape, and be open to the unexpected. This practice helps me reconnect with uncertainty to go beyond the certainty merchants. When I do this, my intuition comes online, dots connect, and new perspectives emerge. So instead of ruminating on that tough work challenge, allow yourself to get lost, let it simmer, and you may find unexpected paths forward. It might seem inefficient, but it’s often much more effective.

7. be COOL

·       Choose to be Courageous and stay with the trouble for a while — allow yourself to get lost;

·       Choose to be Open to the unexpected and the slightly messy and ambiguous;

·       Choose to Observe from different perspectives and to Observe yourself as the Observer and how you are part of it all; and

·       Choose Lightness — to see the beauty in it all, to not take yourself too seriously, to allow yourself some joy in the midst of it and to connect to your imagination.

8. be Human (again)

  • Feel your feelings. Be curious. Laugh. Connect and value others. These are things AI can’t do.
  • Learn to regulate your nervous system responses. Cultivate a breathing practice, reconnect with your body, and move more. Turn anxiety into creative energy.
  • Don’t try to go it alone; find a tribe — but make sure it’s diverse. It’s the quirky ones, the mavericks among us, who can help us find new ways.
  • Develop a strategic relationship with your intuition. There’s a reason Einstein said,

“The intuitive mind is a sacred gift, and the rational mind is a faithful servant. We have created a society that honours the servant and has forgotten the gift.”

It’s high time we remember the gift.

So, finally … when I am stuck in a tangle or I feel overwhelmed, I try to remember:

  • I’ve got this! Being human is about dancing with tangles — I’ve done it hundreds of times in many different contexts, and I can do it again.
  • It might feel overwhelming, but there is always a way forward — pause, re-orient, and keep moving one small step at a time.
  • I’m not alone. We are all walking each other home as we navigate the beautiful complexity and beauty of this life.

I love using metaphors and analogies to help make complex ideas accessible. “It’s hard to survive in the jungle if you were trained in a zoo” or a variation “It’s hard to respond to a jungle if you are structured like a zoo” has been particularly effective to help people understand the difference between complicated and complex contexts.

I believe it resonates because it aptly describes not only two different kinds of systems, but also explains much of our lived experience in modern organisations. Many of us are keenly aware of the mismatch between most organisations, which if we are honest, resemble zoos, and the messy jungle-like nature of the markets they try to serve.

Let’s explore the differences between a zoo and a jungle and some implications.

Zoos are unnatural, ordered environments where animals are kept safely in enclosures (some closely mimicking the animal’s natural habitat), grouped according to specific categories. Zoos have their place; they play an essential role in the conservation of endangered species and in education. However, they are not resilient, and they are fundamentally different contexts when compared to natural ecosystems.

In the controlled zoo world, life is pretty predictable: enclosures or cages are cleaned regularly; animals are fed once or twice a day; even breeding is controlled. The enclosures keep animals apart (much like silos in modern organisations), so there is no need for animals to be alert and situationally aware as they’d be in the jungle, as there is no immediate threat to their survival. There is no predator-prey dynamic here, no competition for resources: so complacency and lethargy soon set in. Animals born in captivity who have been habituated to this context will not last long in the jungle.

How does this relate to the business world?  Do our work and markets fit into neat categories or are they more like messy tangles?  Are our environments closed to outside influences and controllable and predictable, or open, hard to control, and unpredictable?  After the last two years, I doubt anyone would disagree that the world we live in is much more jungle than zoo. However, the typical large organisations still resemble zoos (or we try our best to make them so).

Even with the disruption of large-scale remote work during the pandemic, little has changed. The silos are still there; the control mechanisms in some have increased, not decreased. Predictability and homogeneity seem to be the ideal we strive for: controlled environments with neat, orderly categories and functions and people who behave in similar, desirable ways (aligned to our list of values on the wall). When these configurations (let’s call them silos) become problematic, we try to find different configurations, i.e. we restructure and create new silos rather than embracing a more jungle-like messily coherent web of relationships.

As many companies expect their people to return to physical offices now, interesting dynamics have become visible. One clear pattern is that many people have become “rewilded”. They have tasted the freedom of life outside their zoo cubicles, and they have no desire to return. Companies with hybrid mandates are losing key staff and find themselves unable to attract talent. Companies like Airbnb, which are fully remote, are inundated by job applications, while others (even the likes of Apple) struggle with disgruntled and resentful employees.

Looking back at what happened in 2020 at the height of the pandemic, we simply took the zoo and made it virtual. We never went to the trouble of rethinking and redefining work, structures, incentives etc., for the jungle. We ended up with a virtual, distributed zoo.

The result is that organisations are still caught in outdated structures and linear, reductionist ways of thinking that don’t enable the effective flow of value or the collaboration that complex challenges require. One effect of this is high levels of disengagement and burnout, zoos might be safe and predictable, but they are not particularly inspiring and motivating. In these contexts, jungle dynamics often play out inside the enclosures, with internal politics and power play. A cynical view of the current push for a return to the office is that many senior managers miss the physical “trappings of status” like preferential parking spaces and corner offices. It’s hard to see “who’s who in the Zoo” when we are all reduced to little blocks on a Zoom screen.

The reality is that the fast-changing and dynamic context we now operate in requires engaged and empowered workers across all levels of the organisation. Decision-making is no longer limited to the C-suite; the role of senior leadership has shifted to curating contexts where better decisions can be made by those closest to the decision context.

In addition, we need people to bring their creative selves to work. The challenges we face require imagination, curiosity, and diverse perspectives. Instead of focusing on getting people back into their controlled enclosures, leaders should focus on creating enabling environments where people can show up with :

Courage to challenge the status quo; Openness to learning and unlearning new ways of thinking and working; the ability to Observe and respond to emergence; and the Lightness of play, imagination, and curiosity.

In the two decades that I have been working in the field of applied complexity, I have seen it go from an obscure academic term to something that pervades conferences, business magazines, and consulting offerings. However, very little embodies what complexity philosopher Edgar Morin would term "lived complexity."  

In a paper written in 2008, he asserted that a real understanding of complexity could only come from an internalised intersection of intellectual knowledge and lived practice. He warns against a split between theory and practice and what he calls pseudo complexity thinking: approaches and people who define themselves in opposition to linear reduction approaches but do not consistently live complexity. Pseudo complexity is especially pervasive in the consulting world, where too many consultants brand their offerings with complexity language. However, a reductionist paradigm that believes that we can fully know our reality and that we can map paths into the future definitively still informs their practices.   

"They display all the distinctly reductionist habits of expecting to come to "know" the problem and objectively find the "right" solution by dividing the problem into discrete elements to be tackled by experts who "know" how to do it. Any range of solutions can be tried because, if they go wrong, they can be reversed with little consequence for the system. They will expect, consciously or unconsciously, that once the "real" solution is found, the problem will go away, and they will now have an "evidence-based" decision that can be applied again should "the" problem emerge again. "(Rogers et al, 2013)

(A heuristic I often advocate to my clients: if anyone promises to "simplify" your complexity or "future proof" your organisation, you need to beware.)

This is especially problematic as the world needs practical ways of applying complexity thinking now more than ever. All is not lost, however, as all human beings already have a lot of lived experience in complexity, although we may not use that language. As we negotiate city life or traffic, or social complexities in families or friendships, especially as we raise our children, we effectively engage complexity. We also tend to forget these skills when we enter the workplace.

In a peer-reviewed 2013 paper I co-authored, we attempted to make explicit some tacit heuristics that we collectively cultivated over many years of working in complex systems. We framed them then as habits of mind. (Text in italics below is all from that article)

Habits of mind to thrive in complexity

"A habit of mind is a pattern of intellectual behaviour that leads to productive actions. Habits of mind are seldom used in isolation but rather in clusters that collectively present a pattern of behaviours."

We identified three inter-dependent habit clusters or frames that we consistently apply when navigating complexity. Almost a decade later, it is interesting to see that our thinking still holds and how these relate to our COOL meta-skills.  

  1. Openness 

"Openness can be described as a willingness to accept, engage with, and internalise the different perspectives, even paradigms, to be encountered when dealing with diverse participants in an interdisciplinary situation. An open frame of mind requires conscious acceptance that notions such as ambiguity, unpredictability, serendipity, and paradox will compete strongly, and legitimately, with knowledge, science, and fact. In essence, it means that while navigating challenges of a complex system, one holds one's own strong opinions lightly (Pfeffer and Sutton 2006) and engages as both facilitator and learner. "

Some of the specific habits of mind/practices that promote patterns of openness include:

  • Hold your strong opinions lightly and encourage others to do the same.
  • Embrace emergence: Be prepared for the intervention of surprise, serendipity, and epiphany.
  • Cultivate curiosity — learn to "stay in inquiry" and be curious (vs. assuming, judging, and jumping to conclusions)
  • Value diversity: Encounter every person with equal respect, listen to and acknowledge their specific needs, knowledge, and ways of knowing.
  • Set direction, but be open to not having specific goals or outcomes.
  • Be open to both/and options.
  • Expect ambiguity or paradox: Accepting these as legitimate can often avoid unnecessary conflict.
  • Accept that consensus is often impossible in complexity, adopt an experimental approach rather than forcing agreement to a single approach or solution.
  • Accept others as co-learners, not experts or competitors.

2. Situational Awareness (Observe in COOL)

"One of the critical differences between complexity-based and reduction-based thinking is the importance of context and scale in complex systems. Each issue or system attribute can appear quite different, and interactions have different outcomes under different contexts and scales. Spatial and historical context are very important, but so too are the different participants' value systems and how they lead to different outcomes. An awareness of the complex context in which an adaptive challenge exists and of how it changes in time and space is critical to effectively navigating through it. In essence, one must cultivate a state of anticipatory awareness and constant mindfulness."

Habits of mind/practices that promote patterns of situational awareness include:

  • Consider the importance of relationships and interactions between entities, not just the entities themselves.
  • Be aware of contingencies, scale, and history.
  • Surface organising principles and values that bound decision situations and help keep decision-making consistent from one context to the next (vs. Setting rigid rules).
  • Reflect often: formally, informally, individually, and collectively.
  • Cultivate diverse feedback mechanisms and networks — avoid echo chambers

3. A healthy respect for, what we term, the restraint/action paradox. (Links to Courage in COOL)

"Leadership and decision making in a complex system constitutes a balance between the risks associated with practicing restraint and taking action. On the one hand, if the context requires it, one must consciously practice restraint and create space that allows the emergence of ideas, trust, opportunity, and even epiphany to loosen the tangled problem knot. There is a strong need for a certain slowness (Cilliers 2006) in taking time to allow emergence to unfold. On the other hand, one needs the courage to take action in a mist of uncertainty because, in a complex system, the consequences of our actions are never entirely predictable, and no matter how good our knowledge, there is never an objective "right" decision. This paradox is critical to successfully fostering and practicing adaptive leadership by being conscious of and comfortable with this paradox."

Habits of mind/practices that promote patterns of healthy respect for the restraint/action paradox include:

Decisiveness/willingness to act under tension

  • Encourage courage. Cultivate an awareness of the natural inclination to avoid discomfort and have the courage to push beyond it and seize the "just do it" moment.
  • Embrace provisionality: When we have to decide in the apparent absence of the necessary information, accept that it is likely to be imperfect and that it will be provisional at best.
  • Do not be afraid of intelligent mistakes. Mistakes lead to learning.
  • Avoid paralysis from the natural anxiety response to uncertainty. Accept that there is no one right place to start or end. Take the next best (fit-for-context) action that makes sense here and now.
  • Act small and local. If possible, avoid large, system-wide interventions. One certainty in complexity is that any action can (and often does) lead to unintended consequences.

Restraint under tension

  • Embrace liminality and avoid premature convergence — avoid being too quick to make judgments and choices.
  • Avoid overconfidence to take action in a data-driven "predict and act" mode.
  • Allow the "seeds of action" that you've sown time to germinate. Resist impatience and the need for an instant response.
  • Keep options on the table long past their apparent usefulness. Many will find context later in the process.
  • Know when to rest. Open and participatory engagement exposes vulnerabilities, requires humility, and takes energy.

These three frames of mind are interdependent, with openness as the most critical one of the three as it can enable or constrain the others. To some extent, adequate situational awareness is not possible without openness to diverse perspectives. In a complex system, one cannot afford a one-sided view. Knowing when to act and when to practice restraint depends on one's awareness of changing dynamics in the system, but it also requires openness to the unexpected.

In this paper, we didn't touch on Lightness (the L in COOL). In retrospect, that was a serious oversight. Lightness brings playfulness, the ability to hold our egos lightly enough to try and learn (and sometimes seem foolish while doing so). It also brings humor and appreciation of beauty, a highly needed restorative balm when we feel overwhelmed by the complexity we face.  


  • Rogers, K. H., R. Luton, H. Biggs, R. Biggs, S. Blignaut, A. G. Choles, C. G. Palmer, and P. Tangwe. (2013). Fostering complexity thinking in action research for change in social-ecological systems. Ecology and Society 18(2): 31.
  • Cilliers, F. P. (2006). On the importance of a certain slowness. Emergence: Complexity and Understanding 8:106–113.
  • Morin, E. (2008). On complexity. Hampton Press, New Jersey, USA.
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