Vaccinations – complicated or complex?

The Cynefin framework defines different types of problems and the leadership approach required to address them. It’s a helpful framework as we think about the success of the vaccine roll out – and to understand many other situations that we experience as human beings, and as leaders, navigating through challenging times.

I (Jonathan) was delighted and relieved to receive my first Covid vaccine recently, and like more than a third of the UK population I now have some level of protection against the corona virus. The UK government has rightly received plaudits for an effective vaccine rollout via the NHS and I’ve been thinking about why this has been so successful, while many other aspects of the Government’s pandemic response have been less effective and widely criticised.

I’m a fan of the Cynefin framework that defines different types of problems and the leadership approach required to address them. And it’s a helpful framework as we think about the success of the vaccine roll out – and to understand many other situations that we experience as human beings, and as leaders.

Organising a nationwide vaccination programme is a significant scientific, production, logistical and procurement challenge. But the parameters and objectives can be well defined and easily measured, and the programme draws on established expertise. Despite the noise created by a tiny minority of anti-vaccers and concerns in some social groups, it’s broadly a popular initiative. In Cynefin terms it is certainly complicated – but it’s not complex.

By contrast, the overall challenge of the Covid pandemic is complex. There are many unknowns and the interaction between social, political, economic and health factors is less predictable and require difficult trade-offs. Experts will (rightly) have different views depending on their field of expertise and political persuasion. It’s not surprising that the Government has struggled to stay ahead of the curve. Even the most competent leadership teams are tested when faced with complexity, because these challenges require a high degree of emotional self-control and resilience, the capacity to test and explore assumptions, to interrogate data with objectivity and honesty and a willingness to say, “I don’t know.”

Reflecting further, this illustrates how few significant challenges fall neatly into any one of the five Cynefin categories. Whilst the pandemic in overall terms is complex, and the vaccine roll out is complicated, some elements such as social distancing regulations might even be considered simple – because the correct response can be codified.

What does this mean for leaders, and leadership teams?

First of all, the importance of framing your challenge appropriately and adopting the right mindset. Using Cynefin is one way of doing this, but there are others. Simply ensuring you assess a problem from multiple perspectives can help – what does this issue mean for us? For our employees? For our customers? For our wider stakeholders? Take time into account – ask yourselves how is this issue changing? What aspects are stable, what aspects are emergent or disappearing?

These thinking skills are essential for any leadership team in the volatile and changing world we now all inhabit. As is retaining humility – taking credit for solving a complicated problem doesn’t let you off the hook for failing to grasp the overarching complex challenge!

And if you’d to know more about the Cynefin framework, there’s a great 8 minute video here:

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