Q: How can leaders manage decisionmaking in complex, unknown situations?

A: We are certainly in a most difficult, unprecedented situation. What I would hope for more of with our leaders who have huge impacts on large sets of people is greater transparency and more systemic thinking. We will probably get there eventually as systems adjust. Our society and many large organizations are systems with many interacting, interdependent elements — all of which we can never know or capture in numbers.

As leaders we must quickly learn to think outside of whatever has been our normal mode, and we can rarely do that alone. We all have go-to, trusted “kitchen” groups or representatives of what we have considered the important “elements” or perspectives when all was normal. But they may have many of the same blind spots we generally have. We all have some limitations on how we “see” the systems we lead.

We also have an overly dominant quantitative orientation, which means only numbers count when making important decisions. We wish to influence large sets of people through our policies, based on whatever our numbers tell us; however there are usually important aspects of life and behavior that can’t be measured with numbers. This makes it difficult for our models to capture most of what will count.

Social psychologist Kurt Lewin gave us his field theory, which explained that behavior is a function of ourselves, others and the environment we are in. It’s an interactive model that helps to explain how our behaviors get influenced. All of what counts in outcomes are not rational, but they are human. So how we understand the human parts of all systems is critical when making these complex, difficult assumptions, decisions and policies.

Some practical first steps might include: 1) getting different perspectives into the initial discussions; 2) using some other data in addition to the numbers and statistics; 3) trying more short trials in parts of the system to learn; 4) weighing and balancing numerous variables but not as either/or, but both/and. There are rarely clear, single answers in complexity, but many when elements are weighed differently.


David W. Jamieson is a professor of organization development and change at the University of St. Thomas Opus College of Business.