One thing we can all agree upon is that, if we can’t talk about something, we can’t change it. That’s often where the agreement ends, though. This problem is more prevalent when the change that we want to make involves complex, emotionally charged issues, such as racial injustice, sustainability and bridging divides of all kinds. That’s a problem that we need to solve, but we’ll only solve it if we don’t treat it like a problem.

The Difference Between Complicated and Complex Change

Change has changed, but – for the most part – our approach to initiating and talking about change hasn’t. It used to be that most of the major changes we engaged in were complicated but not complex. Complicated change may have a lot of moving parts, but they are, for the most part, parts. That is, pieces that can be fixed or changed to make improvements, such as reengineering a process to make it more efficient or automating an enterprise-wide management system.

We approach complicated change like a problem to be solved, because that’s what it is. We analyze the process, define the desired outcomes and then plan initiatives to address relevant issues. Sure, there are lots of curves and curveballs to be addressed along the way, but a linear process driven by logical conversations typically results in predictable progress and measurable outcomes. We typically favor this kind of change, because it feels comfortably tangible. In fact, many people believe that all change should occur like this and often act as if it does. Therein lies the problem, because complex change is a different creature.

If complicated change is predominantly mechanistic, complex change is largely organic. Our shared limiting beliefs about ourselves and our world are the origin of our most complex issues. When we approach changing people in the same way that we approach changing parts, we end up deeply frustrated that a training class or two did not completely eradicate patterns of behavior that people have been rewarded for engaging in for decades – if not lifetimes. Let’s take a moment to unravel complex change in simple terms to better appreciate what makes it so complex.

How Our Beliefs Grow into Cultures that Blossom into Systems

Our beliefs are like seeds planted in our minds that grow into behaviors. A simple example would be a belief that being a good and effective leader means keeping everyone and everything under control. When leaders believe that’s what successful leadership is, they engage in behaviors such as telling people what to do and punishing them for making mistakes. These accepted behaviors come to define corporate cultures — even if the plaque with the company values says something entirely different. To ensure that these behaviors are consistently repeated throughout an organization, complex systems are built to reinforce them and disenfranchise people who don’t comply with the expected norms.

Fear is used to ensure that the system runs smoothly by making it very difficult for new behaviors to sprout up and take root in organizations. Witness the career-ending move where someone spoke their truth and found themselves plucked out of the line for possible advancement. It’s important to note that fear controls everyone in the organization. Senior leaders are not exempt. They have their own set of unwritten rules they must follow. Violating those norms can be just as devastating for them as anyone else – only the consequences are typically more public and harder to recover from.

What Does This Mean for Catalyzing Complex Change?

It’s important for everyone who dreams of truly changing any complex system to understand what we’re up against. The process of unearthing old beliefs, planting new ones, growing new skills, and using them to completely reimagine and establish new systems will not be easy. We will come face-to-face with our own limitations over and over and over again. If we are to stay the course and truly establish sustainable new ways of being and doing, there are some conversations we need to have right now to give ourselves a better chance of success:

What makes complex change different?

It’s essential that the various stakeholders who will play a role in supporting complex change understand what differentiates complex change from complicated change. Use these conversations to set reasonable expectations for progress, identify necessary areas of support, outline how various parts of the organization will work together, allocate adequate resources and so on. These conversations will build your organization’s shared ability to recognize how old patterns get in the way of establishing new ones. Develop the habit of getting curious when people get frustrated, and explore underlying beliefs or patterns of behavior that are sparking the reaction.

What skills do we need?

It may be challenging to have those conversations at first, because the sad truth is few people possess the skills needed to engage in conversations that can untangle complex issues. We need to hone our abilities to stay present, get curious, recognize our own limiting assumptions and beliefs, and support each other to expand our worldviews if we are going to break through our shared limited thinking and create a new future. A powerful way to build these coaching-based leadership skills is to teach them to people who are involved with complex change initiatives. When we change how we communicate with each other, we change how we see each other and what we believe is possible. That change alone can—and will—change everything.

How do we make it safe for everyone to change?

When people are fearful, they don’t change because it is too risky. Yet, fear-based leadership practices are the very mechanism keeping old ways of thinking and working in place. That’s why it’s important to talk about how your organization as a whole will make it safe for everyone to change. Begin those conversations with how to make it safe for senior leaders to talk about the things that matter most, try out new approaches, and learn with and from each other. If it is safe for them to lead in new ways, the rest of the organization is far more likely to follow their lead and risk changing, too.

Why does making this change matter?

People are motivated to change in order to attain the things that matter most to them. They decide to engage in change when they believe that they are capable of attaining their desired outcomes. They will stick with the process of making change real and sustainable if they are rewarded for doing so and believe that what they are working toward is worthwhile. Prepare people in your organization to embark on the long journey of making significant change happen by defining and demonstrating what’s in it for them and for the organization. Create a shared vision of what success will look like and feel like. Then, talk about that vision often, so it sustains people when the going gets tough – which it inevitably will. Plant those seeds now, so they grow into resilient determination to break through limiting beliefs and patterns and grow a new way of being, together.

Complexity and complex change are our new reality. Addressing complex change is giving us the opportunity to weed out our limiting beliefs and plant new ones that can grow into a more just, equitable and sustainable world. To prepare the soil, we must first talk about the process of change itself, and build the skills to have much more appreciative and evocative conversations. If we don’t change how we approach and talk about complex change, it is entirely likely that nothing will change at all.