What to say yes and what to say no to?

If you are like many of us working in fast-paced organizations, you most likely have no shortage of projects needing your attention. When the projects start piling up, you are faced with the difficult question of what to take on and what to put off. But the real challenge in making these decisions is that all these projects appear highly important or at least highly risky to avoid.

Fast-paced organizations are fast-paced for one key reason: they are made up of many semi-autonomous agents interacting interdependently, that is, these agents are independent and dependent at the same time. This interaction produces system-wide patterns that in turn influence the future actions and interaction of the agents within the system. Add to this history, culture, expectations, and emerging trends within and around the organization, and you have a recipe for complexity.

If you are a student or practitioner of Human Systems Dynamics, this probably sounds familiar. Your fast-paced organization is a complex adaptive system (CAS). And like any complex adaptive system, control is not possible. Attempts to exert control over a complex adaptive system produces two common patterns: workaholic patterns and burnout patterns. On the other hand, for those that recognize their fast-paced organization as a complex adaptive system, they can shift from workaholism and burnout to strategic wise action.

So what does it mean to take wise strategic action in a complex system? Wise action comes out of using an iterative process of seeing, understanding, and taking action in your world (what HSD calls Adaptive Action cycles). Strategic wise action means that you link these adaptive action cycles to your organization’s strategic goals.

As an agent in a complex adaptive system using adaptive action cycles, you can turn an impulse to control into a power to influence. This gives you the ability to recognize the myriad opportunities in your system, understand their importance as they relate to your current goals, then select the opportunity that best moves you toward your goals. 

So now what do you do to start applying wise strategic action in your system? Start by asking yourself the following questions whenever you are faced with a decision of what opportunities to take on.

  1. What is your goal(s)? What does this project mean in relation to your goal(s)? What does this project do to advance your goal(s)?
  2. What is your capacity to take on this project? What support do you need? What approvals do you need? What do you need to do to start this project?
  3. What does success look like in this project? What about this vision of success is same and different from your other projects? What do you need to do to bolster success? What if you fail? What will you do to support success in this project? What will you do to learn from failure in this project?

Try asking yourself these questions next time you are faced with the question of whether or not to take on a new project or initiative. Watch for patterns that emerge in your work. Try it out and let us know what you think in the comments below!

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