Several contexts for understanding leadership and decision making

An article in the Harv. Bus. Rev., Vol. 85, Nov. 2007 at 69, proposes a framework for leadership and decision making. The framework consists of five contexts defined by the nature of the relationship between cause and effect and the teachings of complexity science. I will skim the surface of the article with a brief summary skewed toward law departments.

The easiest situation, a “simple context,” is the realm of “known knowns” and single right answers, such as when to send cease & desist letters or how to file a security interest. Here, best practices apply. The legal work is largely suitable for paralegals.

In a “complicated context” there may be multiple right answers but the links between cause and effect are clear to experts. It is the realm of “known unknowns.” For example, how to prepare a patent application is a complicated context, one where the legal work is suitable to junior lawyers who have some experience or even expertise.

Most common for senior lawyers in law departments is a “complex context.” In a complex context, “right answers cannot be ferreted out.” A dynamic system prevails and there are many “unknown unknowns.” For example, a hostile tender offer with several potential purchasers has enormous numbers of variables, moving parts, unexpected shifts and unpredictability. Top lawyers spend their important time on complex decision making. Often solutions gradually evolve (“emergence”).

The article goes much further, of course, and it suggests ways to identify the context and match the decision-making tools to the context.

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