Sarah Wirth, VP Member Services at EcSELL Institute, shares a personal story about how her manager helped her grow by throwing her into complexity. When you throw people into complexity, you are challenging them to try something that they haven’t done before. You are asking them to find a solution to a problem when there is no known solution that exists. When done correctly, you can push people to learn and perform in ways they haven’t before. And this is where growth occurs – both for the individual and the organization.
Story by Sarah Wirth
One day about a year after I had started a new job, my boss appeared at my office door.
“Sarah, you got a second?” he asked. I could tell from the look on his face that he was in a serious mood. For him, that usually meant he was in the midst of tackling a complex project. After I told him I had the time, he said, “Come with me.”
I followed him down the hall toward his office and as we sat down, I saw a variety of documents and pieces of paper spread all over his table. They were filled with his chicken-scratch writing in his trademark red ink. He explained that he was in the midst of working on a new way of serving our clients – an idea that would significantly change how we supported their needs with the tools and services we provided. He took a few minutes to share with me his ideas and what issues he saw that led him to believe we needed to try a different approach. As he concluded his synopsis, he asked, “So, do you want to help me with this?”
“Absolutely,” I replied with enthusiasm. I didn’t say so at the moment, but I was thrilled that he had tapped me to work with him. A challenge like this was exactly what I needed at that moment.
Months later, after we had completed our design of our new service structure, I asked him why he had asked me to help him. His response was simple, but very insightful. He told me, “I could see that you were getting bored. You had mastered what I had initially taught you to do and you clearly needed something else to learn.”
I always appreciated that my boss knew me well enough to provide me with a challenge right when I needed, but it wasn’t until years later that I was really able to understand what he had done for me. In that moment, he had challenged with me with a new idea to drive a new level of performance from me. He had thrown me into complexity.
Complexity is essentially the unknown. In a complex system, you can have all the same inputs, but because these inputs are so numerous, interdependent and ever-changing, it is virtually impossible at the outset to predict what the ultimate outcome will be. For example, when your organization is rolling out a brand new product, you are operating in complexity. You may have done market research to ensure there are buyers for your new product. You have likely modeled out the potential sales. However, there are likely to be some unforeseen factors, good or bad, that impact whether your new product is a success.
When throw people into complexity, we are challenging them to try something that they haven’t done before. We are asking them to find a solution to a problem when there is no known solution that exists. When done correctly, we push people to learn and perform in ways they haven’t before. And this is where growth occurs – both for the individual and the organization.
This is exactly what my former boss did for me. He saw that I was stagnating. He knew I needed a challenge. Even though he didn’t have a name for the concept, he instinctively understood that I needed to be thrown into complexity.
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