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Henley Leadership Group Blog

How To Thrive In Complexity And Chaos

Complex World-2

Previously published on Forbes

We stepped off of the luxury coach onto a crudely made sidewalk bordered by a hand-dug ditch teeming with brown water and refuse. All around us, children played in the street, dodging the garbage trucks that roared past every few minutes, trash spilling off the backs and floating into the overflowing ditches. And yet, everywhere we looked, we also saw “micro-businesses” — people selling fruit and vegetables, tortillas, t-shirts. Making ends meet however they could in La Carpio, this 50-year-old Costa Rican refugee camp of 25,000 residents.

As part of a graduate studies course in the Pepperdine Master of Science in Organization Development program, we were there to refine our observational skills and see a side of life that wasn’t in the Fodor’s guidebook. We were learning about chaos and complex systems, getting an education like none of us had ever experienced before.

I immediately started seeing problems everywhere: How to clean up the garbage in the streets? How to make sure that the children were safe? How to stop the garbage trucks from going through the middle of the camp? My mind wanted easy answers, so I jumped to trying to solve them. All without once engaging in a conversation with a single person who lived in La Carpio.

This happens in everyday life, too. We see a problem and we jump to solutions. We are already in motion before the meeting is over. We really haven’t listened or engaged in broadening our understanding of all of the complexities at play. And chaos, which can threaten to overwhelm us, is what we most try to tamp down. 

So many of the issues in our teams and organizations simply are not simple; there are no easy answers or ready-made solutions. The question is, what’s the right response when we’re facing complexity and chaos? What do we do?

Let’s Learn Something New!

Part of the pre-reading for the Costa Rica trip was Margaret Wheatley’s “Leadership and the New Science: Discovering Order in a Chaotic World.” In it she writes:

This world of relationships is rich and complex. We need to know how to stay acutely aware of what’s happening now, and we need to be better, faster learners from what just happened. Agility and intelligence are required to respond to the incessant barrage of frequent, unplanned change.

When attempting to solve complex issues, organizational theorist Karl Weick encourages us to “move away from arguing about who’s right and who’s wrong, and instead to focus our concerns on issues of effectiveness, or reflective questions of what happened, and what actions might have served us better.” Get busy trying experiments and figure what works best. Develop just in time strategies, trust your intuition and be quick to cut losses on experiments that aren’t working. 

This is where to begin when we face complexity:

  • Engage with others who care about the issues, including others who may see things very differently.
  • Listen and make sense of the issue together.
  • Embrace paradox. Let go of being right so that you can see and hear something fresh and new.

These skills move things along even if you cannot immediately see the outcome. It is people who change, and their changing impacts the world around them. When we change our thinking, we change our behavior and our habits.

Learning at La Carpio

During the afternoon of our visit, the grandmothers in the camp, six in total, took our group on a tour of La Carpio. We listened and asked questions. At one point, the grandmother I was with looked around and said, “Isn’t it so beautiful here?”

Suddenly, I could see through her eyes. She saw beauty in the new brick buildings where before there had been tarps and poles. She saw beauty in the school that the community had built for the children. She saw beauty in running water and electricity, something that had not been there in the early years she had lived in La Carpio. My mind opened, and I was moved.

How to deal with complexity and chaos?


Keep your feet under you.



Engage in brave conversations.

Try to understand the whole — or at least get a broader perspective on the complexities you are facing.

Keep listening.

Speak your own truth.

Then take the action that makes the most sense.