Uhl Bien Mary

Changing the Way Leaders Think about Leadership

We’ve spent years teaching business leaders to master age-old concepts of efficiency and control. Dr. Mary Uhl-Bien’s research shows that last century’s models don’t work in today’s complex environments. 

August 18,  2016

By Elaine Cole

We live and work in the 21st century, but today’s businesses are still based on 100-year-old Industrial Age models.

“Instead of concentrating solely on efficiency and control, we need to adjust for innovation and adaptability,” says Mary Uhl-Bien, the BNSF Endowed Professor of Leadership at TCU Neeley, who devotes her research to complexity leadership

Uhl-Bien helps business leaders and organizations adapt to new business models. She outlines three ways to develop agility: embrace complexity, create environments where people can come together and interact, and listen for and adapt to new ideas.

Learn Complexity Thinking

“Complexity is happening because we have greater interconnectivity in the world today, which allows people and events to link up and create change in unexpected ways,” Uhl-Bien explains.

Complexity doesn’t mean complicated. Complexity means rich interconnectivity, when things come together, interact and are fundamentally changed by each other.

Uhl-Bien offers an example of a jumbo jet versus mayonnaise. A jumbo jet is complicated. When you add new parts to a jet they don’t change the other parts. Mayonnaise is complex. When you blend the separate ingredients they are transformed into a fundamentally different state, and there is no going back to the original state.

Complexity means watching for and enabling emergence, when ideas, people, resources and events link up to create change.

Instead of resisting complexity, look for ways to capitalize on it. Look for people you can put together under the right conditions to generate something new and exciting for your organization. Look for trends happening around you to link up and create change. 

Uhl-Bien gives this example for the health care field: “Telemedicine, wearable technology, changing reimbursement systems and more informed patients are creating conditions ripe for emergence in health care. Complexity thinkers see this and look for opportunities to capitalize on, rather than become victims of, emergence.”

Create Adaptive Space

When a business organization stamps out the entrepreneurial spirit or bold new idea, the entrepreneurial people leave and become your new competitor, or they stay and become part of the “no” system.

“Too often, people come to the table with ideas, but they hit a brick wall because managers are trained in the top-down model. They are conditioned to say no,” Uhl-Bien says. “Students go out into a world they’ve been told is empowering and quickly become disillusioned and frustrated because they are in organizations that are not responsive.”

One way to encourage new ideas is to create more adaptive spaces where employees and managers can build on creativity.

This helps adaptive leaders position an organization to be able to go in whatever direction it needs to go to be successful. It encourages everyone to look for emergent events, to spot trends and challenges, so the organization can pivot to take advantage of those events.

Listen for and Adapt to Ideas

Don’t automatically say no to ideas. If someone comes to you with an idea, think about how it can be used, if not now, maybe later, maybe with a few tweaks.

If you are the one with the idea, be prepared to adapt it as you engage with others. 

“Don’t fall in love with your idea, because it may not work in the long run. Use critical thinking, design thinking and adaptive thinking to evolve the idea,” Uhl-Bien suggests. “Put out a prototype knowing that it isn’t the final answer but at least it gets everyone thinking and talking, and then work together to help it morph along the way.”

“That’s more the reality of how change works. It’s not: ‘We should do this, period.’ It’s about adapting,” Uhl-Bien says. 

Dr. Uhl-Bien explains complexity leadership more thoroughly in programs offered through TCU Neeley Executive Education, www.neeley.tcu.edu/ExecutiveEducation. She also teaches complexity leadership at the EMBA level.

“Complexity Leadership Theory: Shifting Leadership from the Industrial Age to the Knowledge Era.” Mary Uhl-Bien, Russ Marion and Bill McKelvey, TheLeadership Quarterly

“Complexity Leadership in Bureaucratic Forms of Organizing: A Meso Model.” Mary Uhl-Bien and Russ Marion, The Leadership Quarterly