One of the counter-intuitive rules in complexity is: Pay attention to now. Most of us are taught that leadership is about forward planning to try to predict and control what the future brings, which can be a massive waste of time—or worse—in a fast-moving and unpredictable world. As leaders align on their five-year-plans, an unknown start-up might be about to skim off their core business, or a sharp change in interest rates might reshape all the assumptions about financing investments. (How many of us were thinking five years ago about negative interest rates?). Their attention on their imagined future means they are swamped by the emerging present.
Complexity requires that we pay attention to the current state of the system, and we look for bright spots (where is the system already going in the direction we want it to go) and weak signals about what the future might be delivering to us. This sounds a little like the ancient wisdom teachings about being present, and indeed there is much in those teaching to admire (they are not ancient wisdom teachings for nothing). But as we explored the idea of paying attention to now in a workshop this week, we noticed that most of our traditions about being present in the moment are actually focused on the individual being in the present on her own. Even those practices we do in a group tend to be in silence, so we can tune into the present inside us.
Those are important for us to do and have all kinds of benefits—for our bodies and for our minds. But when we think about leading in complexity, we’re thinking not only about that kind of being present, but about being present together, what the group this week called the collective now.
In complexity, we don’t believe that the future is ours to be created out of nowhere; we believe the future emerges from what we are doing in the present. Your future competition emerges from a group working on product design now. Your future customers emerge from those you are serving now (or even better, from those you are not serving now). Your future products emerge from connecting ideas with customer needs. This might be obvious, but some of the signals of these emerging futures—perhaps the most disruptive signals—are at the edges of your attention, and they are really easy to miss. It’s as if the important clues in the story are always out of the corner of your vision, and you might be looking away from them. If there are enough of you thinking about your peripheral vision, though, you have a much better chance of seeing helpful patterns.
So what to do? First, to make use of the collective now, try opening each meeting with a quick check in (check ins themselves are fabulous complexity tools). You might draw people’s attention to a particular client or market segment you want to make sense of or you might focus inside the organisation at what is happening with engagement or learning or collaboration. You could ask, “What have you seen that surprised you this week with in our new product release?” or “What are you noticing that seems new or unusual about employee stress levels?” By focusing on what’s new, what’s surprising, you will get people to look at the edges of the collective now and avoid hearing the trends everyone planned for and predicted. A five or ten minute investment at the beginning of a meeting can expose important weak signals; do it every week and people will start paying attention to surprise, to what’s out at the corner of their eyes.
Second, to take more advantage of the collective capacity of the room, you can ask the group look for patterns and outliers. On the first day I asked this question of a group this week, they noticed how hard it is to pay attention to an outlier or—even harder—what hasn’t been said at all.
Which leads us to third, make paying attention to the collective now a habit. By the third time I asked the question, people had tuned their attention both to the patterns and also the edges, and they were finding that very interesting possibilities lurk in the edges.
Living in the present is good for your body and mind. Living in the collective now is good for your organisation, now and in the future.