The Problem with ‘7 Steps’ and ‘3 Things’: Embracing Complexity

My news feed is filled with articles that provide easy answers. Do these headlines sound familiar?

  • Seven steps to solving workplace conflict
  • Three things which will change your life
  • Four ways to raise healthy children
  • Five ingredients that will change your diet
  • You won’t believe #9!

Unfortunately, catchy headlines work! I often delve into these articles only to be disappointed with their content. I fear that this editorial trend is creating a culture of over-simplified solutions based on pop-culture principles. The core problem with catchy headlines is that most of the promised solutions trivialize complexity.

In his seminal book, The Fifth Disclipline, Peter Senge reminds us that the complexity of our daily interactions are increasing. As a result, he proposes that effectiveness requires that we identify the structures which underlie complex situations. This is called systems thinking and  requires us to evaluate how different parts interrelate over time and how they relate to other systems. For example, disciplining an employee for tardiness is ineffective unless it considers related factors such as the impact of their special-needs child or an addiction problem. Addressing an issue like this requires that we evaluate the individuals system.

These questions may help you as you seek to identify and assess the systems which are at work in your complex world.

  1. Do we thrive amidst rules or principles? Catchy headlines tend to rely on rules. I believe success is derived from being principle driven versus rules driven. However, understanding principles take work.
  2. Do successful people or organizations adopt or adapt? What works in one place doesn’t always work in another. Successful people learn from others, but they always adapt these lessons to ensure they fit their own situation. Adapting requires that we identify the principles of success rather than duplicating someone else’s practices (see #1!).
  3. Are people or organizations like gears or snowflakes? A colleague recently referred to his clients as snowflakes. They all appear similar from a distance, but when viewed closely, every one is unique and different. The snowflake embodies the concept of complexity and why we should challenge easy answers.
  4. Is your environment changing (open) or unchanging (closed)? Rules and prescribed solutions work when there is little change in an environment. However, there are very few closed systems in our world! When you acknowledge your changing environment, you will be forced to look for patterns over time, see the big picture, identify complex interactions, and validate your understanding of ‘what causes what’ (Hughes & Beatty, 2005, p. 74).  

I was tempted to title this blog, “The one thing your MBA didn’t teach you”, but I had to follow my own advice! Successful people are able to synthesize complexity and that cannot be accomplished in ‘seven steps’ or by doing ‘three things’.


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Jeff Suderman is a professor and consultant who works in the field of organizational development. He partners with clients to improve leadership, teamwork, organizational alignment, strategy and their FutureReadiness. He resides in Palm Desert, California. Twitter: @jlsuderman


Hughes, R., & Beatty, K. (2005). Becoming a strategic leader your role in your organization’s enduring success. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Live|Die|Repeat: Thinking Like Gen Y/Z

Sometimes, popular culture provides us with unexpected insights about life. This recently occurred during family movie night when we watched Edge of Tomorrow. This futuristic science fiction thriller was not only an entertaining movie, but it helped me understand aspects of how generations younger than my own think (I’m a Gen X’er).

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SPOILER ALERT: Content below will spill movie details!

In the movie, Tom Cruise is unexpectedly caught up in a fight against aliens who have invaded earth. However, the aliens are almost invincible and Tom and his partner find themselves regularly being killed only to wake up the next day to relive the same sequence of events. As a result of what they learn from their recurring identical experiences (like the movie Groundhog Day), they get closer to their goal of killing the mother-alien each day. This is more succinctly summarized by the movie tag-line: LIVE. DIE. REPEAT.


The idea of repeating a task and doing it more successfully a second, third or twentieth time is a fundamental premise of most video games. As a result, ‘do-overs’ are a normal part of life for a generation raised in homes with multiple gaming consoles. Since they think, study, work and live differently, employers need to equip themselves to work with Generation Y & Z employees who enter the workforce with different mindsets. It is critical that we do not label these differences in negative ways. Instead these differences carry both positive and negative components, just like the prevailing set of characteristics that any generation possesses.

At this point in my blog, I typically cite research which supports my insights. However, this weeks research won’t be found in any academic journal or book. Instead, it is based on 38 cumulative years of observations of my three children. As a result of this research, here are a four principles and implications of a Live, Die, Repeat mindset which characterize many who make up Generation Y and Z .

1. Perfection is less important than trying.

The upside: They are willing to fail. Since innovation requires that we try new things, comfort with failure is important!

The downside: They are not perfectionists and often do not expect to get it right the first time. Perfectionist bosses beware!

2. Jumping-in vs. planning ahead is encouraged. Most video games are fast-paced and encourage doing and then thinking (see my recent blog post  Do–>Think or Think–>Do).

The upside: They are people of action.

The downside: Extensive listening is slow death for them.

3. Experimentation is required.How many times did it take to beat the final level of The Legend of Zelda? Many!!

The upside: They are taught to think creatively and try things that may seem illogical.

The downside: The journey may become more important than the destination. 

4. Motivation is intrinsic.Since games teach them to live, die and repeat, the motivation to beat the challenge comes from within.

The upside: They need a deeper reason to do something than “because I said so”.

The downside: Sometimes they simply need to do it “because I said so”.

An important caveat must be included at this point – this generalization is not fully true for every person and every situation. However, the themes of these behaviors are regularly observed in our family.

How does the LIVE, DIE, REPEAT mindset manifest itself in your personal and work lives? What observations would you add?


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I provide consulting solutions which help organizations achieve their mission. Organizational improvement occurs by developing leaders, fostering organizational alignment and blending strategic planning with foresight. The sample group for this article are proudly displayed in this recent family photo.

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