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Book Summary: Simple Habits for Complex Times – Powerful Practices for Leaders

Simple Habits for Complex Times (2015) is a guide for leaders looking to navigate today’s ever-shifting and always uncertain world. Rather than presenting one-size-fits-all solutions only suitable for static problems, this management manual teaches the art of nimble thinking.


Management, Leadership, Business, Self Help, Business, Personal Development, Productivity, Psychology, Business Management, Business and Organizational Learning

Introduction: A guide to success in an unstable world.

The world is a complex place, and it’s only getting more complicated. New technologies, changing social attitudes, and a rapidly evolving economic landscape present an ever-shifting array of opportunities and challenges. Navigating these volatile conditions requires a new type of leadership.

This summary can help show you the way forward, by teaching you the subtle art of nimble and flexible leadership. Rather than giving tired clichés about working more and pushing harder, this manual lays out how to develop elegant solutions to complex problems.

In these summaries, you’ll learn the power of thinking systemically, the utility of making unexpected connections, and the importance of asking the right questions. These tried-and-true lessons come from Jennifer Garvey and Keith Johnston’s decades of experience teaching leadership skills. Now, their expertise is at your fingertips.

[Book Summary] Simple Habits for Complex Times: Powerful Practices for Leaders

In these summaries, you’ll learn

  • why guardrails are better than targets;
  • when cause and effect don’t match; and
  • how planning to fail is a plan for success.

Our complex world requires new approaches to leadership.

Here’s a tough scenario: Yolanda just became the head of a government agency responsible for placing children in foster care. It would be a great gig, but the agency is a mess. In her first year on the job, multiple children are hurt or go missing.

She does everything she can to solve the problem. She commissions reports, internal investigations, and fact-finding missions. In the end, all this research turns up tons of information but no answers. There are just too many variables to consider and no patterns to be found.

The key message here is: Our complex world requires new approaches to leadership.

The world is a very different place than it used to be. There are more people, more ways to communicate, and everything from supply lines to personal networks can now span the entire globe. All this intricate interconnection gives rise to a set of conditions we can abbreviate to VUCA: volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity.

VUCA poses a particular challenge to leaders, a category that includes everyone from the heads of big businesses to parents and teachers. Leaders have traditionally made decisions about the future by examining the past. However, in our VUCA world, the past is no longer a great predictor of what is to come.

Think about it. 500 years ago, there were only a handful of careers to choose from. Today, choosing the right course of study means anticipating a career that might not even exist yet.

Under these conditions, an effective leader needs to cultivate three crucial mental habits.

First, they need to practice asking different questions. You should always ask questions that broaden your thinking rather than narrow it. For instance, if something goes wrong, don’t just ask “what happened?” also ask “what else could have happened?”

Second, leaders need to take multiple perspectives. Don’t simply rely on your own point of view. Make an effort to understand how others see a situation. Even if you disagree, the difference in thinking or reasoning could provide valuable insight.

Third and finally, leaders need to see systems. This means taking a step back and looking for unexpected connections. It’s easy to look at the world as a series of single causes and effects, but it’s more accurate to see the world as a web, where each action has multiple causes and multiple effects.

Let’s look at how this all plays out in action.

Understanding complex systems involves seeing beyond cause and effect.

Let’s return to Yolanda, the head of our government agency. She’s sitting at her desk surrounded by stacks of files and folders. Each stack contains in-depth reports about an individual case of a missing child. Each report is filled with details, dates, and descriptions.

Reading the reports is heartbreaking, but not illuminating. They each provide an intimate story about what happened to an individual child, but give no insight as to why multiple children had to suffer.

What Yolanda is dealing with is a complex system. Such systems are so full of variables and interconnections that they can produce a whole range of possible outcomes. And since there are so many moving parts involved, predicting these outcomes becomes difficult.

If Yolanda wants to understand the system she’s dealing with, she has to change the way she thinks.

The key message here is: Understanding complex systems involves seeing beyond cause and effect.

The ability to understand the basic concept of cause and effect was a huge advantage to our ancestors. For early humans, connecting some past actions to positive outcomes and others to negative ones was the difference between life and death. As a result, our brains evolved to see this simple narrative everywhere.

Sometimes, the past really is an excellent predictor of the future. If you got sick last time you ate expired sushi, there’s a good chance that will happen if you try it again. However, this pattern doesn’t always hold. Just because people bought tons of VHS tapes last decade, doesn’t mean they’ll do it again ten years from now.

If a system defies the linear cause and effect pattern, then it’s a complex system – and it requires a different way of thinking. To fix a broken complex system, you can’t just analyze individual negative results. The exact circumstances that produced them may never occur again. Instead, focus on the processes a system makes possible.

To do this, first, analyze the present arrangement of the system. Map out all its nodes and connections. Then, use this information to project into the future. What outcomes are possible? Which ones are more likely than others?

This approach can be tricky. However, it can also reveal the inherent tendencies within a system – that is, what a system has been doing without you even realizing it. By experimenting with small changes to the system, it’s possible to shift those tendencies to be more beneficial.

Feedback should form loops, not lines.

Picture this scene: It’s performance review time at a high-powered consulting firm. It’s been a rough year with a lot of change. The stressed-out senior director sits at her desk. Across from her is her equally frazzled employee. Now, here’s a question: In this situation, who would you rather be?

As it turns out, most people would rather be neither. Giving and getting feedback is an essential yet unpleasant part of any job. It can be tense and tedious. If done poorly, it can even result in more problems down the road. However, these issues can be avoided if you let feedback become a two-way street.

The key message here is: Feedback should form loops, not lines.

Unfortunately, most people tasked with providing feedback adopt the wrong strategy. They see the process as a straightforward, one-way operation. In this model, the supervisor knows the truth, and they must simply pass it on to their subordinate.

However, this approach is too linear, and does not create the feedback loop necessary for an organization to evolve.

Instead of this hierarchical model, feedback sessions should be approached as a space of mutual exchange. Both parties should be empowered to provide information into a shared pool of knowledge – and, crucially, both parties should take care to understand the other person’s contributions.

Of course, this is easier said than done.

To make things run smoothly, it’s best to separate your pool of information into three separate streams.

The first stream is the facts. This is just a pure distillation of empirical data: numbers, events, and concrete details. The second stream is feelings. This is how each person perceives these facts. Which ones are positive, and which ones are a source of frustration? The third and final stream is impacts, or, the actions that resulted from these perceptions.

When each party shares their assessments this way, it’s possible to create a more accurate picture of the world – without creating tension. Both the supervisor and the employee have a chance to receive new information, and both become potential points of change. As a result, the organization is much more likely to remain agile and responsive in uncertain situations.

Planning for an uncertain future requires room to experiment.

Spaghetti, string, tape, and a marshmallow. Give these same materials to three groups: a group of architects, a group of consultants, and a group of children. Now, tell them to build the tallest tower possible. Which team will come out on top?

Obviously, the architects. But, most of the time, the children are a close second. While the architects have all the technical knowledge, the kids benefit from a wealth of creativity and a carefree attitude to try out wacky ideas. After all, if their tower falls, they can still eat the marshmallow.

These days, what first seems like a crucial goal may be irrelevant by the time you reach it. Or, the steps you planned to take may end up leading in the completely wrong direction. The future is uncertain, so your path forward must be flexible.

The key message here is: Planning for an uncertain future requires room to experiment.

Before our VUCA dominated times, leadership was a more linear process. A successful manager had a clear roadmap to success. They just needed to collect all the relevant information, decide on the best direction, communicate a clear goal, and then help the rest of the team reach it. However, in our volatile world, information is always in flux, and the goal can be a moving target.

With the world more slippery than ever, having a rigid plan just won’t cut it. In this context, it’s better to have an overarching vision and a flexible approach to achieving it.

What exactly does a flexible approach look like? For one, it means avoiding strict targets. These are fixed metrics like, “keep customer calls below ten minutes.” While such stats are easy to measure and comforting to hit, they can be overly prescriptive. An organization with static targets will develop stagnant approaches to meeting them. It won’t adapt if the outside world changes.

Instead, try setting a looser goal and experiment with approaches to achieving it. Ensure your experiments are “safe to fail” by setting clear boundaries about acceptable outcomes. For instance, to meet a loose goal like “more satisfied customers” it may be okay to lose X amount of revenue, but completely unacceptable to break the law.

With clear boundaries in place, a team will be free to try out bold, novel ideas with sometimes unpredictable results. Such an arrangement will help your organization move toward their overall vision while still being open to new paths forward. You might be surprised where you end up.

Organizations are complex because people are complex.

Clear-headed, calculating, perfectly logical. When asked to describe the ideal coworker, these are some of the adjectives that usually top the list. And yet, unless you work on an intergalactic starship down the hall from Spock, they probably don’t describe your colleagues.

But remember: they don’t describe you either. The truth is, no one is entirely rational. The human brain is excellent at analytical thinking, but it comes with a whole host of irrational quirks, biases, and eccentricities as well.

The key message here is: Organizations are complex because people are complex.

There is a persistent myth that at work, people should leave their emotions and feelings at the door. Business is business, right? Still, this is far from reality. Even a typical day at the office is full of emotional ups and downs, from the frustration of long meetings to the joys of break room banter. But this doesn’t have to be a bad thing. In fact, it’s part of what makes us human.

And it informs our decision-making, too. While we like to think our choices and actions are based on well-grounded logic and empirical evidence, this isn’t always the case. The truth is, our brains rely on a lot of shortcuts that influence our thinking.

One such shortcut is confirmation bias. This is our tendency to only see facts and details that support our preexisting beliefs. Another shortcut is our bias toward the familiar. We are more likely to favor and trust people and opinions that we already know or that remind us of our own. And yet another is fundamental attribution error. This occurs when we focus on a specific person or action as the root of a problem rather than looking at the wider situation.

While these biases sometimes help our thinking, they can often lead us to the wrong conclusions. Imagine a department is failing to meet its goals. You might jump to blaming the manager for poor leadership. However, the true cause might be more distributed and subtle, like an incipient economic recession or a seasonal cold slowing down the staff.

And all these small quirks build up, making organizations complex and sometimes irrational institutions. It’s important to be aware of them when approaching any dilemma. It’s also possible to cut back on their influence by including multiple perspectives when trying to solve a systemic problem. That way, one person’s unavoidable quirks won’t dominate the conversation.

A complex world demands new approaches to communication.

Years of practice, a written score, and an able conductor leading the way. It takes a lot for an orchestra to do justice to a beautiful symphony. But this complicated task is made simpler by having a clear goal: to play a faithful rendition of a composed piece.

A jazz band has a different challenge. Each time they play a song, it can be, and is supposed to be, completely different. This improvisational approach takes a unique type of communication. There’s no fixed score to lead the way, and each musician has to be open to subtle cues and unexpected riffs.

There’s risks and rewards to this dynamic musical style. Sometimes the band will lose their spark, but when they’ve got it, what results is incomparable.

The key message here is: A complex world demands new approaches to communication.

In the old, uncomplicated world, a leader’s job was to communicate in clear and simple narratives. Like a conductor, their task was to make sure each member of an organization knew the group’s precise destination. Then, they had to spell out exactly the steps everyone needed to take to get there. This was a very linear, hierarchical model of communication.

The VUCA world is more like jazz. The destination can’t be given in definitive detail because the desired outcome is still unknown.

But that doesn’t mean complex organizations should be aimless. They should still know the general direction they want to go. A company may know they want to digitize more services, for instance, without setting in stone exactly which services should become digital.

To communicate more flexible goals, leaders need to change their language. A helpful approach is to reframe discussions to be less about final destinations and concrete steps, and more about journeys and processes. Metaphors can be helpful. Is your organization looking to “blaze a new path” or simply “tack slightly starboard?” Don’t fixate on the ends, but focus on how you want the organization to move in the present.

If your organization is used to clear messages, adapting to this approach can feel unnerving or strange. Don’t be afraid to tap into those sentiments. Be clear with your team members that embracing uncertainty can be both scary and a bit exciting. Being comfortable feeling these conflicting emotions is essential to working under VUCA conditions.

Approach every change as a chance to grow.

Think back to the biggest changes in your life. Were they intentional and planned, like a move to a new city? Or, were they unexpected surprises, like a sudden accident or business failure? Maybe, the changes were so gradual, you didn’t even notice them happening until they were over.

There’s no denying that change can take many forms. But, no matter what form it does take, change itself is inevitable. So, handling it in the right way is a crucial skill for any leader.

The individuals best suited to confront change and complexity are those that adapt to shifting conditions. They grow to meet new realities, see new challenges as a chance to cultivate new skills, and approach an unstable world with agility.

The key message here is: Approach every change as a chance to grow.

According to Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck, there are two types of people in the world. The first type see themselves as completely stable. They think their identity is fixed and static. The second type of person sees themselves as dynamic. Their identity is a work in progress.

It’s no surprise that the second type of person, the one with a flexible self-conception, is better suited for the ever-changing world of VUCA.

But don’t despair if you see yourself belonging in the first category – anyone can become this second type of person. The trick is adopting a self-transforming mindset. This mindset recognizes that, while the world is volatile and out of our control, how we respond to this uncertainty isn’t.

Asking different questions is a great way to cultivate a self-transforming mindset. Don’t focus on “what am I?” or “what have I done before?” Instead, ask yourself, “what can I change?” and “what do I want to be in the future?”

Organizations as a whole can adopt this mindset, too. Examine your organization’s rules and values. Do they rigidly enforce a status quo, or, do they invite experimentation, variation, and adaptability? Even seemingly common-sense rules like “only hire the most qualified person” can stifle a self-transforming mindset. Bringing in talent with a little less experience or a unique background could provide the fresh energy and new perspective needed to adapt to changes.

The important thing to remember is that – for both individuals and groups – development and growth is an open-ended process. There is no final end point or ultimate finishing line to cross. The VUCA world is always changing, and your community needs to be open to change with it.

Organizational change can’t be forced, it must be cultivated.

When you flick a light switch, your lamp turns on instantly. But, when you plant a seed, you don’t expect to be harvesting fresh fruit in a matter of minutes. Instead, you must till the soil, water the earth, and make sure your young sapling gets just the right amount of sunlight.

Just like growing a verdant garden, developing an organization ready for the VUCA world takes patience. There’s no magic button to press or lever to pull. It’s all about creating the right environment, and then letting nature take its course.

The key message here is: Organizational change can’t be forced, it must be cultivated.

By now, you probably recognize the importance of adapting to our more volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous world. You’re probably even itching to rise to the new challenges it presents. And that’s great!

But it’s important to remember that you can’t overhaul everything overnight. In fact, there’s a benefit to taking things slowly.

It might be tempting to treat every potential problem like a crisis that needs immediate action. But this approach has two serious downsides. For one, it can lead us to adopt the solutions we already know without considering novel alternatives. And two, it can cause us to implement changes without understanding the potential range of outcomes.

Avoid these issues by creating a space for slow contemplation. For smaller subjects, this could mean setting aside the first part of a meeting to unpack a topic without offering any solutions. For larger projects, this could mean explicitly preparing for weeks of experimentation, trial and error, and open exploration without expecting any results.

In either case, the key is to create an environment that is flexible and free, not rigid and hierarchical. Make sure feedback flows smoothly back and forth. Communicate the direction you’re heading in without setting a final destination. And, understand that each setback, failure, or unexpected twist is an opportunity to learn.

Don’t be discouraged if things don’t feel different immediately. Adopting these habits is not a one-time event, but a process that happens over time. The more you make the effort to shift your organization’s mindset, the more it will feel at home in our volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous world.

Final Summary

The key message in these summaries:

The world is not as simple as it once was. Our increasingly interconnected, fast-paced, and technologically-advanced society is becoming more and more volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous. These conditions require a new form of leadership that is flexible, fluid, and agile. Successful leaders should embrace change, welcome feedback, and empower their organization to continually experiment and explore as they pursue the probable and the possible.

Actionable Advice: Mix it up.

Sometimes the best way to cultivate creativity is by creating new space for conversation. When approaching a problem, try creating working groups composed of unusual combinations of people. Diversity is key. Mix together senior members and young upstarts from across departments. You may be surprised by what unconventional solutions will emerge.

About the author

Jennifer Garvey Berger and Keith Johnston are founding partners of Cultivating Leadership, a global leadership consultancy. Jennifer is the author of Changing on the Job (Stanford, 2011). Keith is the former Global Chair of Oxfam International. Follow them on

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