Home Concepts Organizational Theory Leadership in the Midst of Complexity, Uncertainty, Turbulence—and Contradiction

Leadership in the Midst of Complexity, Uncertainty, Turbulence—and Contradiction

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Contemporary organizations, like streams that have many interacting subsystems tend to create more turbulent subsystems than do those with few subsystems. Streams will have many subsystems if submerged rocks or trees that have fallen into the stream are present (creating whirlpools and stagnant pools). It is important to reiterate that any stream will tend to become more turbulent the more rapidly the water in it is moving. Any system will tend to become turbulent as the movement of subsystems within the system is increased. This acceleration of movement produces an increasing amount of interaction among the subsystems.

There are an increasing number of subsystems in 21st Century organizations that are not consistent with one another (the ironic condition). Furthermore, there is an acceleration in the change within and among these organizations—resulting in an increasing amount of turbulent, unpredictable and fragmented space in which subsystems interact. Thus, we find, as in the mountain stream, a rich interplay between elements of order and elements of chaos, all intertwined in complex, unpredictable and turbulent subsystems of organizational life.

The Landscape of Puzzles, Problems, Dilemmas and Mysteries

I am about to introduce another metaphor and another level of analysis in understanding the nature of irony operating in contemporary organizations and the nature of challenges facing the leaders of these organizations. I specifically propose that there are four kinds of issues being addressed in most contemporary organizations: puzzles, problems, dilemmas and mysteries. Each of these issues involves a different organizational landscape and each, in its own way, yields ironies that the leaders of


Puzzles are the everyday issues that anyone working in an organization must face. Puzzles have answers. They are uni-dimensional, in that they can be clearly defined and can readily be quantified or at least measured. Puzzles concern such things as changing a production schedule to accommodate a major new order or determining the appropriate fee for a new, longer training program. Puzzles also concern changes in organizational policies to accommodate new laws or re-arranging an office floor plan or a parking space distribution. With a puzzle, the parameters are clear. The desired outcome of a puzzle-solution process can readily be identified and is often important to (and can be decided by) a relatively small number of organization members. It is the sort of issue rightly passed to the lowest level of responsibility where the necessary information is available.

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