Simple Habits for Complex Times

Jennifer Garvey Berger and Keith Johnston

This is an extremely useful book as it captures in one place much of my thinking about change and development.  The authors are standing on the shoulders of some of my favourite giants, including Argyris, Duhigg, Kahneman, Kegan, Stacey and Torbert.  The text is interspersed with case studies that make the theoretical aspects of the book more palatable.  Although some of the American dialect may feel brash or forced to a British reader, it is worth ignoring your fears about this and jumping in.

It is an unusual book in that it is relevant to both L&D professionals (including coaches) as well as  clients and I can heartily recommend it.

The three habits of mind suggested, all deceptively simple, are:

  • Asking different questions
  • Taking multiple perspectives and
  • Seeing systems.

Each of these is expanded upon and illustrated in such a way that they become accessible.  I like some of the catch-phrases introduced such as “safe-to-fail” experiments and “saying what you think while listening to the ways you might be wrong.”

The authors are unusually modest in their approach and I particularly enjoyed the self-effacing vignette of Jennifer’s son saying “Mom, don’t you teach listening? Or do you just teach fake listening?” She continues, “We’re learning.  You get better and better at listening but you never arrive.”

I will revisit the Cynefin Framework – pronounced Ken-ev-in – (D.J. Snowden)  in another blog post but just to say here that this distinction between complex and complicated systems is illuminating.  The chapter on giving and receiving feedback illustrates beautifully how limiting, and often damaging, conventional methods are.  They suggest an alternative process that is both affirming for the recipient and potentially transformative for the organisational system.

I chose this book to take on holiday, suspecting that I would barely get beyond the first page, but I found it very readable.  It might be an exaggeration to say that it’s a page turner but I would encourage you to read it during the holiday period.