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Managing in Complexity – A Governance Conversation

“Government is inherently complex because you have so many different interests, perspectives and timelines that you have to take into account,” reflected Dr. Sara Filbee in conversation with Michael Wernick, former Clerk of the Privy Council.

Dr. Filbee’s new book – Managing in Complexity: How Our Fears of Uncertainty Can Hurt Us and What To Do About It – was the focus of this Institute on Governance (IOG) webinar conversation on May 17th.

The discussants reflected that complexity is often “predictably unpredictable”. That makes the task of governance both challenging and dynamic. Understanding complexity and learning how to navigate it is an essential skillset for those leading and managing in today’s public sector. It is core, they agreed, to ensuring effective public institutions that deliver for Canadians.

Is the world more complex than it once was?

Audience members were keen to explore whether our current environment is vastly more complex than past realities faced by previous generations and what practical steps public servants could take.  Dr. Filbee, a former federal ADM herself, noted the multitude of existential and interconnected threats that make the current moment unique.

Michael Wernick emphasized that careers in the 2020s and 2030s will require individuals who can navigate rapid changes and complex environments but that we should take comfort from previous challenges that have been successfully managed by past governments.

So, what to do about it?

We heard that in order to thrive in a complex government setting, the following actions are key:

  1. Think About ‘Who We Are Becoming’: The way you collaborate with colleagues today influences future working relationships. Focus on building a cooperative and supportive work environment.
  2. Aim for the Best Possible Outcome: Instead of seeking the perfect solution, aim for the best possible outcome given the circumstances. This pragmatic approach can lead to more effective and timely decision-making.
  3. Prioritize People: Leadership in government is about getting the most out of teams. Understand and leverage the strengths of your team members to achieve collective goals. Understanding and working with people is an essential skill.
  4. Cultivate Curiosity: Read and explore topics outside your immediate field. This broadens your perspective and prevents the pitfall of believing that one discipline holds all the answers.

The event follows the launch of Dr. Filbee’s book: Managing in Complexity: How Our Fears of Uncertainty Can Hurt Us and What To Do About It. This book is tailored for leaders and managers looking to enhance their effectiveness in an increasingly uncertain and complex landscape. To watch the full webinar, visit the IOG’s YouTube channel.