Navigating Complex Change

Written by Rob Cousins, Co-Founder of

In the realm of managing change, the effectiveness of our change approach is intricately tied to the nature of the challenge at hand. While simple and complicated problems often find resolution through technical solutions, the landscape becomes more complex when dealing with challenges that resist easy definition and comprehension.

For example, urban planning is a mixture of individual rights and needs overlapping with those of others and the collective needs of communities in housing, transport, climate and economic outcomes. There are no clear solutions.  Instead multiple projects, stakeholders and disciplines intersect to create a context that is neither static nor within anyone’s direct control.

These adaptive challenges demand a departure from conventional interventions and familiar ways of working, and require a shift towards a collaborative, dialogue-driven approach.

Unlike their simpler counterparts, adaptive challenges lack straightforward solutions. Their intricate nature necessitates a nuanced understanding that cannot be achieved through persuasion alone. Instead, what is required is a broad engagement of stakeholders, not merely from a design standpoint, but to create understanding, and implement interventions across various spheres, each with its distinct set of owners and interests. The success of addressing adaptive challenges lies in fostering dialogue and aligned collective ambition, steering away from imposing change onto unwilling participants.

The following table lists the features of technical problems and allows a comparison against adaptive challenges:

In the pursuit of managing adaptive challenges with both clarity and flexibility, it becomes imperative to cultivate an environment that allows for experimentation, learning, and adaptation as the context evolves. To embark on this journey, a foundational step is to explore the interdependencies and relationships inherent in the challenge. By convening diverse stakeholders and immersing them in the intricate web of cause and effect, a shared understanding of what truly matters and motivates participants begins to emerge.

This shared understanding becomes the catalyst for collective ambition. It transcends the realms of compromise and negotiation, evolving from a deeper wisdom and appreciation of the complex systems shaping experiences. The result is a shared opportunity space that stakeholders collectively agree upon, providing the groundwork for collaboration.

Once this stage is set, the focus shifts from the problems to the opportunities that lie ahead. By inspiring a positive vision of the future, people naturally gravitate towards contributing their energy and resources. This approach, known as multi-actor change, encourages individuals to initiate their own changes, fostering an adaptive environment that generates energy and opportunities for a broader spectrum of participants.

In essence, the key lies in how we perceive the challenges and opportunities before us. Viewing them through the lens of adaptive challenges opens doors to a more inclusive approach. This perspective invites a diverse range of technical disciplines to engage with the intricacies of the context, enriching the understanding of interdependencies and relationships. This, in turn, empowers individuals to collaborate meaningfully in areas that resonate with them, steering the collective effort toward the desired direction.

In conclusion, the path forward in addressing adaptive challenges involves a deliberate shift in perspective and approach. By embracing dialogue, cultivating shared understanding, and fostering collective ambition, we can create an environment where diverse stakeholders actively contribute to a positive future. This collaborative paradigm not only navigates the complexities of adaptive challenges but also propels us towards a future where change is not imposed but collectively embraced.

This article is written in conjunction with the webinar recorded on 16 November 2023, titled, “Navigating Entangled Opportunity Spaces’ – delivered by OpenChange Co-Founder Daniel Hummerdal – click here to view.

At Open Change, we believe in the power and wisdom of people to address challenges that many experience, but no one can solve alone.  We help organisations design and build change strategies, develop and apply tools to increase participation and agency, and create strengths based approaches within and between those involved in programmes.  This additional article explores ways to immerse leaders into the complexity.

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