top of page

The Complexity Trap

When playbooks don't work, strategies stop dead in their tracks, and predictions don't meet reality, the last resort is to boost your capacity to see new perspectives and operate effectively in hyper complexity.

Why it matters: There is a big gap between the unpredictable reality and the predictable expectations boards have from CEOs and leadership teams.

CEOs imply predictability of business outcomes even when there is no chance of achieving them because too many moving parts don't 'comply' with the predictions.

Complexity is the hybrid of unpredictability and inter-dependability when there are a few variables we can't control. If one variable changes, the other changes in an unpredictable way. It's like solving an algebra problem with more variables than equations.

How to identify the complexity level

The Cynefin framework (pronounced ku-nev-in) by Dave Snowden is a model that helps executives understand the context of the issues they face.

  • The framework sorts issues into four contexts based on the relationships between cause and effect.

  • Once you have a good sense of what context is relevant to your situation, you'll be able to make better decisions and make fewer mistakes in complex situations.

  • Each one of the different contexts suggests different decisions and actions.


  • On the right side (clear and complicated), cause-and-effect are predictable.

  • We make decisions based on data, facts, and best practices.


  • The left side (Complex and Chaotic) cause-end-effect are unpredictable, don't exist, or we can't see them.

  • We make decisions based on emerging patterns.


In the Clear context, the answers are obvious. Decisions are easy and based on established practices. For example, payroll, order processing, accounting, and similar issues.

  • The problem is that we sometimes mistakenly classify issues into this context when the issue is Complicated or even Complex.

  • When issues are prematurely classified as Clear, they block any new thinking and prevent changing existing processes.

  • Leaders who operate primarily in this context become numb to changes in their context. Best practices are not the next practices.


Complicated context also has a relationship between cause and effect, but this relationship is not obvious, and there is more than one solution.

  • You'll need to look over the data before you decide. This is where consultants and experts play a significant role, for example, in big engineering projects like airplane design. 

  • Experts dominate this context.

  • The common problem is that experts often disagree on the solution and get stuck in analysis paralysis when they need to realize they face a Complex context.


We enter Complex territory when we cross the threshold from the predictable to the unpredictable.

  • We look for emerging patterns when we don't understand why things happen the way they happen.

  • In this context, agile principles are very valid. Instead of forcing a direction, you conduct small experiments, look for the path forward to emerge and reveal itself, and only then move full power forward.


In a Chaotic context, patterns don't emerge, and you can't make sense of what's happening.

  • If you're caught in useless experiments that don't get you anywhere, it's a Chaotic context. 

  • In this context, taking action quickly and correcting the course later is the best way to move forward.


Open AI's ChatGPT is the fastest-growing consumer application in history. It reached 100 million monthly active users in January, just two months after its launch.

  • The impact is unimaginable. Google issued a Red Code over the app, and Microsoft is now the coolest kid in town. 

  • The AI context is Chaotic. Currently, thousands of companies work independently and interdependently (many of them use OpenAI) in response to this sudden exponential leap.

  • These companies act fast and make big moves without the luxury of time to gain insights from experiments.

Here is the problem:

In my last post, 'Full potential' isn't enough, I revealed the developmental journey of our 'full potential.' 

  • The gist is that there are seven levels of potential, in which only the three most evolved potentials are effective in complexity.

When we linearly align the complexity model and the potential framework, you see that the higher the complexity, the higher the 'full potential' needed to address it.

And because only 15% of the leaders operate in the augmented potentials of Expansive, Integral, and Unitive, the rest, 85%, can't make sense of complexity.

Augmented potentials make sense of complexity.

Most leaders are Domain Centric and Vision Centric. 

  • Domain-centric leaders do great in the Complicated context.

  • Once they cross into the complex context, they are still looking for safe-fail solutions instead of fail-safe experiments. 

  • Vision-centric leaders look for defined outcomes instead of experimenting to find emerging patterns that reveal the path forward.

  • They can't tolerate complexity because they haven't developed their inquiry capacity. They operate in a Complex context like it's a Complicated context.

  • These leaders fail in complexity because they try to make sense of what doesn't make sense. They try to impose order when there is no order.

The Expansive, Integral, and Unitive Transformers are complexity-ready

  • Augmented potential leaders always ask themselves, "How can I be wrong?"

  • These leaders encourage diversity of thought outside the area of expertise and invite diverse points of view that contradict their way of doing business and even their own vision (mission impossible for Vision Centric).

  • Their constant observations of themselves, their teams, their organizations, and their ecosystems alert them of shifts from one context to another. 

The bottom line:

  • When you experience a situation where you can't predict the outcome because two or more parameters operate independently and interdependently, you are in a Complex context.

  • You then switch how you make decisions and act to experimenting and inquiring about patterns.

  • If you feel it's difficult, you are playing from Domain Centric or Vision Centric, and you need to upgrade your potential to the next level.

Go Deeper

19 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page