– you need to look at your management disciplines. Adding simple diagnostics to our repertoire can be empowering.

Read on how listening for these words can be a tell-tale diagnostic tool in complex adaptive systems for:

  • Board Directors
  • CEOs
  • Executives
  • Operational leaders

In these times of turbulence and uncertainty we are all thrust into trying to understand and provide direction in networks of inter-dependent complex adaptive systems.  In times of disruption and shifting demand and supply drivers the range of inter-dependencies beyond our typical strategic scoping come vividly in to view.  Who would have thought consumer concerns on safety and distancing would upend behaviours established for generations?  Who would have thought issues for a supplier to a supplier, to a supplier of yours would upset your daily reliable work delivery?  It can be overwhelming.  It can feel too much!  We can wake up in the middle of the night questioning is this all beyond me?!

We all know at certain points in the organisational life cycle the value in opening ourselves to external strategic scans and diagnostics to stress-test capabilities to meet strategic imperatives.  Many Consulting firms around the world make a living out of this specific requirement.

However, as explored in my articles around the Leadership Team Change-fitness Ladder there are risks in losing our internal sense of accountability when we feel we hand over the power to others to expose our gaps.

Talking with leadership teams I like to say sure, utilise the best external advice to strengthen our capabilities, just make sure we are engaged in exposing our own gaps – we are not handing that role over to others as detached players.  Strengthening self-diagnostic capabilities creates a better dynamic for engagement of others (internal and external) and the energy to follow through on insights identified.


Through working on your own leadership team change-fitness many of these issues could be exposed and explored yourself.

4 practices of change-fit leadership teams

One simple example I like to add to the common diagnostics is listening for key words such as “If…, but…, maybe…, depends…”


Hearing these is an indicator you need to look at your management disciplines.


For clarity, I am saying “management disciplines” in the specific sense of the type of activity, not the role title use of the word.

Leadership: leading people, inspiring, coaching, mentoring, training etc. is accountable for engagement.

Management: managing ‘things’ like plans whether strategic or operational, budgets, processes, systems, resources, capital, technology etc. is accountable for plan delivery and process effectiveness.

Both leadership and management are essential for effective strategy execution. Both are typically parts of our Executive or Operational leader role.

I first became specifically conscious of listening for words as an indicator in the ‘people space’.  Understanding and developing my own thinking patterns and in coaching and mentoring others utilising models from Neuro Linguistic Programming (NLP).

Auditory and Visual senses tell us so much of what is going on.  Word patterns, body language, eye movement are indicators to surface issues for the conscious level and the unconscious level.

(NLP is a fascinating and potentially life changing study.  If you are curious for more on this I suggest you look up ‘NLP at Work: The Essence of Excellence’, by Sue Knight)

In Management disciplines – the management of ‘things’ – plans, budgets, processes, systems, technology etc – the use of visual cues is quite strong.

Most of us, whether we consider ourselves students of management or not, intuitively know the visual cues of a well-managed operating system.

For example, if a new food outlet was to open locally most of us can “see” if it is a place we want to go to, and indeed will have a sense if it is likely to be viable.  Visual cues jump out at us – the space, the quality, the layout, the cleanliness, the staff urgency or focus, the attendance of others.


The visual cues of traffic light Dashboards and reports can also be useful and are a commonly deployed tool.  However, in practice can often be set to provide reassurance rather than provocation  – which does not build our insight or change-fitness.

Going deeper into the visual cues of workplace organisation/ management disciplines some of you may have heard of or been trained in 5S. A system made famous by Toyota for creating a safe and efficient workplace originally applied on the factory floor, now widely in use in offices, hospitals, hotels, Banks, and even with software filing systems.

Practiced rigorously the 5S method exposes significant opportunities to improve work effectiveness and reduce stress and wasted energy.

Similar cues of an operating system can from “listening”.

When listening to people in an organisation, Tune in your ear.

Hearing “if …but …maybe …depends…” in the answers to questions is a cue for lack of clarity of management processes design. The most common driver of ineffective work.



Studying work and diagnosing opportunities for progress in complex adaptive systems is an increasingly sophisticated science.

A science in which all leadership teams can develop a common understanding of the fundamental principles, the 4 key attributes and general system dynamics of a complex adaptive system.

Complex systems begin with individual components called autonomous agents, which make decisions and produce results in the system. To be complex, a system:

  1. Requires diversity in the types of agents. If they are diverse, they will respond differently to various inputs, producing more varied results.
  2. Requires connectedness. …The agents must have a way to contact one another.
  3. Requires interdependence, which means that the agents influence one another.
  4. Requires adaptation. In complex systems, adaptation means more than change; rather it refers specifically to learning.


A useful reference systems effectiveness diagnostic process, as applied in manufacturing, supply chains, health networks, and complex service systems such as financial services and software as a service, is that summarised by Steven Spear in the classic HBR article, Decoding the DNA of the Toyota Production System.


This process is noted for bringing simplicity to complexity around this topic.

Rule 1 states: design and perform every activity so that it is structured and self-diagnostic.

According to Spear:

“To be structured, an activity must be designed and performed with a prespecified sequence of steps, an expected time per step, and an expected outcome”.


“To be self-diagnostic, an activity must be designed so a built-in test immediately generates a binary (yes/no) signal.


The yes/no signal is what we are listening for!

We can talk detailed diagnostics of complex operating systems another day, however whether you are a Board Director, CEO, Executive, or Operations leader when you HEAR “if…,  but …,maybe…,  depends…” from people looking to you for instruction take it as a cue YOU need to lift your management disciplines – to be more specific in system design, process triggers, service requests.


What simple diagnostic do you add to the discussion on Expose practice that empowers teams?


What has been your experience?