Leading into the Future III: From the Pendulum to the Fire
Implications for the Postmodern Leader
Earlier in this essay, I mentioned that contemporary leaders are facing fire-like problems and mysteries, rather than pendulum-like puzzles. At this point, I wish to go deeper into this distinction and relate it specifically to irreversibility and orders of change. I begin by describing what constitutes a problem and how it differs from problems and mysteries.
Puzzles are the everyday issues that anyone working in an organization must face. Puzzles have answers. They operate like pendulums and are uni-dimensional in that they can be clearly defined and can readily be quantified or at least measured. They are typically solved by an increase or decrease in some resource or activity. In other words, they require a first order change.
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 federal laws or re-arranging an office floor plan or 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.
Researchers (for example, Miller & Page, 2007) who study complex systems use the metaphor of landscapes to distinguish a complex challenge from other types of simpler challenges being faced in various systems, including organizations. They point to the image of a single, dominant mountain peak when describing one type of landscape. Often volcanic in origin, these imposing mountains are clearly the highest point within sight. For those living in or visiting the Western United States, we can point to Mt. Rainer (in western Washington) or Mt. Shasta (in northern California). Mt. Fuji in Japan also exemplifies this type of landscape. You know when you have reached the highest point in the region and there is no doubt regarding the prominence of this peak. Similarly, in the case of puzzles, one knows when a satisfactory solution has been identified. One can stand triumphantly at the top of the mountain/puzzle, knowing that one has succeeded and can look back down to the path followed in reaching the solution/peak. There are other landscapes that are much more challenging—and these are the primary domains of those who are leading in a postmodern environment.