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« Back to China | Main | Malala Yousafzai: ‘Even the darkest of acts are capable of bringing great light’ »

Complexity, Thinking styles and Global Mobility

Deciding to move internationally with your work isn’t easy.  It’s a complex decision. 

There are many factors to consider and organise.  Personal, family, and wellbeing factors combine with career and travel opportunities.  Those of us who have moved globally recognise the complexity of these factors. Balancing a great career move for one partner may significantly impact on the career of the other, or the education of the children, or the safety or wellbeing of the family.

Those who are organising and facilitating the moves also recognise the complexity of these factors.  HR and Global Mobility professionals work to keep abreast of changing international situations alongside an assignee’s needs.

I spoke about this complexity recently at a global conference (#FIGT2019 inBangkok) and about the thinking styles that are most suited to working with complexity. The attendees represented many of these groups –those who move, those who arrange the moves and those who support and advise in the transition.

We discussed the patterns of thinking we each naturally preferred and how they fitted into the complexity framework.  This framework describes the situations referred to below.  We challenged each other to watch out for and identify our thinking traps and stretch our cognitive capacity to think and work in different ways – to ask different questions. And to identify the patterns that work in non-complex situations that may at times support us in complexity and in chaos.

What do you do that supports in Simple / Obvious situations where there is usually an obvious ‘best’ practice to follow. We need to work out what the situation is and use practices, processes and questions that fit.

  • Global mobility practices might include checklists, processes, SOPs.
  • Family processes and practices may also include checklists and to do lists focusing on what do I need to do next and ticking things off.  Practices such as bedtime or school morning routines, mealtime sharing such as asking what have we learnt today? What are we grateful for today? Or saying grace before a meal. 
  • Coaches questions might include –What are the practices you regularly do that have supported you in the past?  Questions about accountability may also be helpful –How are you going with your do-list? What do you need to focus on next?

 In Complicated situations, where there is a cause and effect but we can’t see it yet, we analyse, we consult the experts to find the ‘good’ practices.

  •  Global Mobility and HR have policies that address the more complicated situations.  They may use scenario planning, systems thinking, expert advice such as global remuneration, tax, or visa specialists and even psychologists or intercultural specialists.
  • Families will benefit from access to these experts in their decision making and planning.  Many families in transition develop complicated spreadsheets evaluating their decisions re housing or international schools
  • Questions for coaching are more exploratory; What do we know? What don’t we know? What do we need to find out?  When we have this information how will we evaluate it?  Who can help us?

In Complex situations- there is no obvious cause and effect, no obvious solution and unknown factors that we can’t even consider because we aren't aware of them.

  • In organisational contexts, we talk about safe-to-fail experiments and agile thinking.  ‘Let’s try this and see how it impacts.’  This can also be applied to family thinking.  We can remind ourselves that there isn’t necessarily a ‘right’ answer or one ‘best’ solution and that it’s Ok to work towards an outcome that is ‘different’ or ‘new’. 
  • Questions to ask – What can we try here?  If we played with something different what might that be?  Can we get a sense of how trying that has changed things?  How flexible can we be? What are the polarities we may be thinking about and managing?  Are those polarities real or have we created them? 

In Chaos situations, we need to act to get us out of chaos. Our goal is to establish order. 

  • Act, decide, change something, do something and then reassess.
  • What do you need to do right now to take care of you, or others?  What action could you take to make this situation more bearable, more ordered. 
  • And are some of your simple practices things that need to come into play to support you as you act?

And then there’s Disorder-  an unclear situation where we don’t know where we are and need to gather more information to identify. 

Many relocates when they describe moving feel that they move from an ordered state, sometimes simple and sometimes complicated, to a complex state where every decision is a challenge, or to disorder where they aren’t sure what is happening and they don’t have the information needed and then sometimes into chaos where there are emergencies and crises.

I realised as I began learning about this area that my preferred area is in the complicated space.  I love to analyse and find an evidence based solution. But that may not be the best response to many of the situations we are facing today. 

Some key lessons I’ve had reinforced for myself, as a coach /practitioner supporting global mobility in complex situations

  • Watch for the mental biases that are easy to slip into
  • Recognise that there is a domain I function most naturally in and work to gain skills and to ask questions relevant for the other domains also.
  • Listen to learn as Jennifer Garvey-Berger describes
  • Always be curious about other possible sources of information
  • Be aware of my values and how they may be influencing me as a practitioner.
  • Help the family or organisation to identify their values and observe them in action.
  • Focus on influencing and not controlling
  • Be comfortable experimenting at the edges

Global transitions are seldom simple so we need to make sure that our responses and practices aren’t either.


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