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Simple habits for complex times

Updated: Aug 30, 2018

Simple Habits for Complex Times by Jennifer Garvey Berger.

HCubed ran a book group and discussed the book simple habits for complex times. This book asks what leaders can do when faced with complex challenges, or uncertain outcomes, and find that working harder and smarter with the latest management tools still doesn’t produce the right answer, generate the predictable plan or nail the guaranteed result. Garvey Berger suggests three integral practices to enable leaders to navigate the unknown: taking multiple perspectives; asking different questions; and seeing more of the system.


We liked the simplicity of the themes – it’s a very accessible book and one several people have recommended to clients. The flip side of accessibility is that for some the well-worn combo of academic theory and illustrative stories wound some people up, and got boring especially towards the end. Interestingly some of the group preferred the factual and others the fiction, but either way found we could just pick out the interesting bits…

Many recognised in here the work of people they admire (check out the bibliography Kegan, Kahneman, Tobert, Dweck…) and some of our own practices. In a way this book is a bringing together of a lot of complex thinking and practice, so whilst nothing totally new, it’s a good refresher. Great to see some classics like the Cynefin framework for making sense of context applied to today’s world.

The three practices really resonated with the group, in particular taking a systemic perspective and letting go of the end point or big answer in favour of movement in a direction – nudging inclinations or disinclinations and holding the tension between an expansive and a reductive approach. We talked about how counter-intuitive it is not to hang on tighter when things are tough or challenging, and how the ideas in this book can help people to step back and approach things differently.


Particular thanks to Jonathan Males for recommending and passionately advocating this book, plus giving a live demo of a practical technique for seeing the system – Bill Joiner’s exercise for broadening the frame of an issue which draws on embodied experience.

And then the so what. Would these ideas fly in large organisations, for example would not having a clear strategy work? The Board vignette seems very salable, and there are other good stories – safe to fail experiments, nudges in the right direction – changing the inclinations a little bit at time like BP and BG doing safety nudges after catastrophes to achieve major cultural change. These stories also work at the individual level – safe experiments and nudges are central to coaching. Can we use these ideas in assessment?


The book doesn’t really look at this, but why not?

This book asks us to let go of the rational, ex-post facto explanation and accept that it’s a VUCA world that calls for some simple but powerful habits. We’d have liked even more practical techniques and practices, but maybe those are coming in her next book?!

  • Suggestions for next time How To Have A Good Day: Think Bigger, Feel Better and Transform Your Working Life by Caroline Webb The Fear-free Organization: Vital Insights from Neuroscience to Transform Your Business Culture by Paul Brown The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do, and How to Change by Charles Duhigg



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