Last month, in a blog about what I learned on the mountain, I introduced the term Complexity Fitness. As a reminder, Complexity Fitness
There’s lots to explore about Complexity Fitness. It’s a relatively simple concept, but, as with many things having to do with how we change and grow, the difference between understanding and acting can be quite significant.
In my own practice, and as I work with clients, I find it helpful to remember that the resilience of a complex adaptive system depends on (among other things) the existence and ongoing cultivation of three core qualities—flexibility, stability, and connection. This is true whether the system in question is a country, a community, a company, or an individual. For all of us—from CEO to individual contributor, from seasoned diplomat attempting to negotiate a challenging peace deal to 53-year-old woman attempting to climb her favorite iconic mountain for the first time–getting fit for the reality of the unpredictable, uncontrollable world we live in comes down to awareness and practice. And for those of you out there who might be a bit put off by the idea of “getting fit,” this kind of fitness tends to reduce, rather than cause pain!
Flexibility: See, embrace, and flex with the inherent complexity of the environment.
One of the key things to remember about complexity is that, by definition, it’s not controllable. This may seem ridiculously obvious, but this realization has huge implications. The feeling of no control shows up in our bodies as a threat, to which the most common responses are either flee (deny, avoid) or fight (work harder, garner more resources, do anything to gain control of the situation.) And yet, most of us know not only that we cannot control every detail of our lives but that it is futile and even anti-helpful to try. Experienced climbers know to be prepared for any weather, to stay present to the changing conditions, and to change course as necessitated by the environment as it emerges moment to moment. Effective negotiators—assuming all parties are working toward at least a similar objective—understand that there is more than one path from here to there and that a decision made today may well have to be changed tomorrow in service of the ultimate purpose. Parents know from experience that what works with one child won’t necessarily work with another.
So how do we bridge this gap between our theoretical knowledge that we must adapt to changing circumstances and our deep physiological and psychological desire to know and prepare? Here are a few suggestions.
Stability: Find solid ground and use it
When I introduce my clients to the idea of complexity and suggest that much of what they have previously thought they could control is not as controllable as they thought, their first reaction is generally a sigh of relief. Liberation. But relief and liberation are often quickly followed by worry. Does this mean there is nothing solid? Nothing I can do that I can count on? Is everything I thought I knew no longer helpful? It’s really helpful to remember that in the midst of complexity, there is always something relatively stable. Find or create stability and amplify it where you can. Climbers find stability on the mountain by using ropes, practicing their knot tying, rope coiling and uncoiling, and their belaying skills again and again until they can do them with their eyes closed. Effective negotiators know what their non-negotiables are. Parents create stability for their children through consistency and unchanging rituals such as family dinners or bedtime stories. From a solid root system, the branches of a tree can grow long and beautiful, can sway in the wind without breaking.
Here are a few stability-enhancing practices.
Connection: Don’t go it alone; connections enable and enhance both stability and flexibility
Connection is the lifeblood of Complexity Fitness. Mountaineers know that climbing with the right partner is easier and safer than going it alone, no matter how expert and experienced they might be. Diplomats spend an inordinate amount of time cultivating personal relationships partly because they know it is much harder for people to take advantage of someone they know personally. And when it comes to parenting, the saying “it takes a village” reminds us that raising children, one of the most complex endeavors I know, is a team sport. True complexity fitness requires the cultivation of both intrapersonal and interpersonal connection. Intrapersonal connection starts with understanding and embracing the self as an integrated system whose thoughts, feelings, language, emotions and sensations are constantly shaping and being shaped by each other. Our Identity and ultimately our actions in the world emerge from the constant interplay among these, and so it is critical that we attend to all of them, especially when we need to adapt to a changing context. At the interpersonal level, connection enables trust and collaboration, both of which are absolutely essential in times of rapid change. They enable individuals and collectives to respond flexibly, rapidly, and resourcefully to events that couldn’t have been predicted.
Here are a few simple suggestions for cultivating connection.
The thought of getting yourself or your organization fit for
complexity, like the thought of getting physically fit, might be a bit
overwhelming. Try not to overthink
it. Just try something. Anything that amplifies one or more of these
three qualities—flexibility, stability, and connection. See what happens. Learn.
Adjust. Like physical fitness, complexity fitness is a lifetime practice. And as it is with physical fitness, the benefits
are well worth the effort.
 The sense of self in which we are invested.
 The integrated wholeness of our physical self
 For a great read about what complexity fitness looks like in the context of high stakes international diplomacy, I highly suggest reading Not for the Faint of Heart, by Wendy R Sherman.
 See my article Coaching Practices of Body and Mind to Support the Transition to Self-Authorship for further descriptions of these and other practices.