The complexity gap
For decades, my colleagues and I have been working with and refining a developmental assessment system called the Lectical Assessment System (now also an electronic scoring system called CLAS). It can be used to score (a) the complexity level of people’s arguments and (b) the complexity level—“task demands”—of specific situations or roles. For example, we have analyzed the task demands of levels of work in large organizations and assessed the complexity level of employees’ thinking in several skill areas — including reflective judgment/critical thinking and leadership decision-making.
The figure above shows the relation between the task demands of 7 management levels and the complexity level scores received on an assessment of decision making skills taken by leaders occupying these positions. As illustrated by the green line, the task demands of hierarchically nested positions in most organizations increase in a linear fashion, spanning levels 10–13 (a.k.a. 1000–1399).
After work level 2 (entry level management), the capabilities of leaders do not, for the most part, rise to these task demands.
This pattern is pervasive — we see it everywhere we look— and it reflects a hard truth. Individual leaders, working alone, aren’t capable of meeting the task demands of the most complex situations they are likely to face in today’s world. My colleagues and I have come to believe that our best hope for meeting these demands is to (1) recognize our human limitations, (2) work strategically on the development of our own skills and knowledge, (3) learn to work closely with others who represent a wide range of perspectives and areas of expertise, (4) use the best tools available to scaffold our thinking, and whenever possible (5) implement systems and processes that support the development of perspective-coordination skills.
We aren’t alone. Others have observed and remarked upon this pattern:
Jaques, E. (1976). A general theory of bureaucracy. London: Heinemann Educational.
Habermas, J. (1975). Legitimation crisis (T. McCarthy, Trans.). Boston: Beacon Press.
Kegan, R. (1994). In over our heads: The mental demands of modern life. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Bell, D. (1973) The coming of post-industrial society. New York: Basic Books