People often ask ‘when do we use participatory leadership?’ Firstly, it helps to understand the nature of the problem faced i.e. is it a complicated or a complex problem?
What’s the difference between sending a rocket to the moon and getting children to succeed in school? What’s the difference between a surgeon extracting a brain tumour and judge and jury deciding guilty or innocent for a person accused of murder?
Sending a rocket to the moon or surgeons extracting a brain tumour are complicated tasks, while getting children to succeed in school (or, for that matter, raising a child) or organising a criminal justice system are all complex tasks that involve interconnected or interdependent parts.
Once we understand the type of problem then we can choose the best methodology to solve the problem.
Cynefin (a Welsh word meaning ‘habitat or place’) is a framework developed by Welsh scholar Dave Snowden that provides a framework to help you decide on a suitable approach to solving a specific problem.
The model can helps us to see key distinctions between environments that are simple, complicated, complex or chaotic. This perspective also helps us to see the difference in leadership practice required by different environments.
Simple environments tend to call for a formulaic solution. If a building is on fire, command and control leadership is appropriate and the best practice would be for people to follow the fire drill to evacuate the building.
Complicated environments on the other hand include both ‘known facts’ and ‘unknowns’ and benefit from a process that draws on collective knowledge, information and experience. This approach can find a unique collective wisdom that enables the work to move forward. It is a much deeper, broader and more generative approach than applying accepted ‘best practice’, or pulling answers from previous experience alone.
The challenge when analysing complex systems is that looking at the parts tells you almost nothing about the system. What’s needed is to at look the interactions and feedback between the parts and the emergent behaviour that the interactions and feedback bring about. Another example of a complex problem would be birds flocking – each bird has only a small set of behavioural characteristics or rules when flocking and completely analysing a bird does not give an inkling of the splendour of the motion that a flock of birds draws in the sky. The behaviour of the flock emerges from the interactions of the whole and, critically, cannot be predicted by looking at the behaviour of each bird separately.
Complexity requires participation, collaboration and listening together; it requires all stakeholders to be in the same room. We need to ask powerful questions of one another and there needs to be a willingness to experiment. From the apparent disorder, a unique and powerful practice emerges that everyone involved can be an ambassador for.
Related blog posts: Participatory Leadership