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Leadership in Complexity

Updated: Apr 20, 2021

Welcome GAPPS Competency Report/Framework

Happy spring Humantific readers! Hope everyone is good out there in these bumpy covid times. This week we are beginning a two part series, sharing our observations related to the recently published competency framework/report entitled: A Guiding Framework for Leadership in Complexity created by the Global Alliance for Project Professionals (GAPPS).

“The Global Alliance for the Project Professions, is a volunteer organization working to create performance based frameworks…to address the needs of the…project management community.”

To be brief Humantific readers: What we are seeing in the big world out there, is lots of interesting material being published around the subjects of complex creative problem solving, design for complexity, systemic design, navigating complexity, complex project management and leadership in the context of complex situations. Clearly various groups are seeing their constituents turn a corner, express interest in the complexity rising subject as it applies to them. This GAPPS competency framework contains views of their project management association membership on what they are framing as Leadership in Complexity.

In the opening Forward of the GAPPS competency framework/report this useful context setting statement is made: “Faced with volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous (VUCA) environments, governments, individuals, and both public and private sector organizations have become interested in frameworks and guidance that describe competencies required for leading in complexity.”

With so much interest in the changing future of work, the forward looking competencies vision thing continues to rise in popularity. Anticipating a quite different, continuously changing future, many organizations are at work on general and specialized competency models that ultimately relate to community and or organizational skill-building, capacity building.

The competencies vision, that appears in the GAPPS competency framework significantly differs from our Humantific perspective expressed in our practice and in our Complexity Navigation skill-building program but that, in part, is what makes it interesting.


After referencing “leadership,” the GAPPS competency framework explains its focus as describing “minimum competencies required for anyone endeavoring to get things done in the face of complexity”. The “getting things done” theme is joined later in the framework by a few references to innovation, creativity and change making.

We found this useful report to be heavily influenced by and tilted in the direction of how the systems thinking community thinks about itself, the world, about “projects” and the subject of complexity.

The GAPPS competency framework contains an apples and oranges structure of “5 Units of Competency” that includes: 1. Think Holistically, 2. Exercise Personal Mastery, 3. Provide Conditions to Enable Decisions and Action, 4. Respond to the Environment and 5. Engage Collaboratively. Within those "5 Units” are 22 subset capabilities called “Elements of Competency” that are each briefly described.

This GAPPS structure differs significantly from other future competency models that we know of and work with such as The Future Work Skills Academy based on the research and vision of the Palo Alto Institute for the Future.

In processing the GAPPS competency framework/report we could see need for simple explanations for the terms “management”, “projects”, “leadership,” “innovation,” and “complexity”. If GAPPS has historically been focused on project management, then why was the jump to “leadership” being made? In our practice world these are two different things.

Although the migration is not surprising, this is not really explained in the report and much of what is being described is, from our perspective, management related….as in: You have been assigned to manage a project of high complexity and these are the 5 Units and 22 subset competencies that you now need. All of that readers can view in the 50+ page GAPPS competency framework itself.

For our Humantific readers here, to keep this post digestible and meaningful in a timely way, we have made a list of 10 things that we liked in the GAPPS competency framework, a few additional things we could not help but notice, as well as (for upcoming Part 2) 10 things that we do differently at Humantific related to competency and innovation leadership in everyday complex situations.

The following Ten Things We Liked tends to reflect the degree to which we are somewhat aligned with certain aspects of the GAPPS perspective, while differing on others. We certainly appreciate all the work that went to the cocreated GAPPS framework. Not an easy thing to do with a 100+ contributing authors.


1. “Complexity means different things to different people. It is very much in the eye of the beholder and is not a binary concept. There are degrees of complexity. Uncertainty, ambiguity, and the interactions of multiple stakeholders with differing perspectives are sources of complexity.”

2. This (VUCA) complexity can be associated with dealing with interdependencies and delivery of endeavors in many different contexts including projects, programs, contracts, supply chain, and business as usual across all industries.”

3. “This Guiding Framework is performance based, presented in the form of descriptors of minimum acceptable performance in the workplace. Such descriptors will usually be developed for a specific role. In this case the focus is on the minimum competencies required for anyone endeavoring to get things done in the face of complexity across all types of endeavor and in all roles and contexts…[contradiction] The focus is therefore on including only those actions and competencies specifically relevant to leadership in complexity.”

4. “Distinctions may be drawn between complicatedness and complexity. Essentially, an endeavor may be considered complicated when there is a large number of interconnected and interdependent parts. It becomes complex when the interdependence and interconnectedness of those parts changes in unpredictable ways.”

5. “Snowden’s Cynefin Framework distinguishes between contexts that may be considered simple, complicated, complex, chaotic, or in a state of disorder…. In reality, even endeavors that may be considered simple or complicated may have some level of complexity especially when people are involved and where there are high levels of environmental or technological uncertainty.”

6. “Shared meaning amongst stakeholders is fostered to build momentum for change.”

7. “Data is used to harvest insights for improved performance and innovation.”

8. “A culture is developed to support wellbeing of teams and individuals in the face of complexity.”

9. “A culture that supports and encourages open communication, innovation and creativity at all levels of the endeavor is promoted.”

10. “Organizations can use it as a framework from which to develop their own tailored expression of the required competence.”


The GAPPS competency framework seems to be formulated around a somewhat presumptuous, three-part dance step of 1. overly assuming that systems thinking contains advanced problem finding/framing/solving methodology knowledge, 2. flying at 30,000 feet with very general notions of competency and 3. oddly privileging convergent thinking (decision making) with barely any reference to generative thinking or the leadership responsibility to enable both in Think Balance.

Most of the competencies in the GAPPS framework would be considered, by many of the organizational leaders we know, to be high altitude generalities, the rough equivalent to mindsets. Often the GAPPS competency framework seems to be presenting an overview of an overview. Nothing wrong with such high altitude views but in practice this would raise as many questions as it would provide answers, in particular around the notion of How to do what is being stated. Suffice it to say the GAPPS competency framework is a little light on the “How”.

“A positive outlook is maintained.”

“Resilience is demonstrated.”

“Discovery and insight are driven by curiosity.”

“Openness to different and conflicting views is exhibited.”

“Self-awareness and reflective ability are demonstrated.”

“Capacity and capability are built to respond to emergence.”

“Attention is given to weak signals.”

“Authentic appreciation is expressed.”

“Trust is cultivated and employed responsibly and proactively.”

“Leadership behaviors are tailored to the situation.”

“Problems and issues are dealt with or retired.”

“Conflict is approached openly, strategically and creatively.”

“Organizational capability is developed to support resilience in a VUCA environment.”

“Active listening is used when engaging with stakeholders.”

“Appreciation of complexity is shared.”


In the GAPPS competency framework we noted a tilting towards convergent thinking depicted by the authors as decision making. This is where the struggle between focusing on project management versus evolving to innovation, or change making leadership becomes most evident. Clearly the dynamics of innovation leadership are different from traditional project management.

As the project management community might just be discovering, today there is more to an innovation leader’s responsibilities then just supporting and promoting convergent thinking, aka decision making which is often the already overly represented status quo.

“Decision-making and action are driven by a systemic vision of the proposed outcomes of the endeavor.”

“Attention is given to impact of decisions and actions on society, the environment, and the process and end product of the endeavor.”

“Appreciation of the consequences of dynamic interdependence between systems informs understanding and decision-making.”

“The history of the endeavor is investigated to inform future decision-making and action.”

“Data is leveraged to drive decision-making.”

“In setting up the organization for the endeavor, consideration is given to creation of conditions that enable resilience, self-organization and timely decision-making.”

There were no equivalent descriptions of the role of generative thinking in the GAPPS competency framework. Suffice it to say that generative thinkers would not likely find themselves at home in this competency description, while the convergent thinkers would certainly be happy campers, seeing their thinking styles reflected there in what is valued. In human terms, what that means, if taken literally, is that the values and descriptions within this competency model would be leaving out half your team, i.e. the generative thinkers. In the evolution from project management to innovation and leadership in complexity this becomes important.

This is not an abstraction, but rather relates in human terms to supporting or suppressing the voices, the brain power and the contributions of half the team. No modern organization that is serious about innovation capacity building, wants to be doing privileging or suppression consciously, but unconsciously this bias dynamic is often present.

This particular imbalance is not uncommon in traditional engineering oriented authoring groups, in military settings as well as in many business organizations. It is a rather old style imbalance that flies in the face of inclusive innovation enabling dynamics today. Some might describe it as an “old power” imbalance. In the context of enabling change making an over-emphasis on convergent thinking (decision making) is an often seen red flag. (More on this later in Part 2)


With the above in mind we certainly noticed these 3 listed competencies in the GAPPS framework text.

“Teams are actively managed to benefit from diversity.”

“A culture that supports and encourages open communication, innovation and creativity at all levels of the endeavor is promoted.”

“Influence of bias is understood and addressed.”

These three brought a smile. From our Humantific perspective, the GAPPS competency framework itself presents a not difficult to recognize cognitive bias. Having that bias embedded while wishing for or demanding “open communication, innovation and creativity” is an often seen disconnect in organizational culture building transformation work. From experience we know that the creation of psychological safety for all does not emerge from that dynamic.


Something we noticed when viewing the Appendix within the GAPPS competency framework is that there may be some confusion or intermixing regarding how the notion of complexity is being interpreted. In our practice world the fuzzy complexity of a situation being faced by a project team is different from the complexities of managing a project. The eight “Tools For Diagnosing Complexity” referenced within the appendix are guides to assessing project complexities, including stakeholder relationship complexity, governance complexity, resource complexity, etc.

The proportional emphasis on such tools and that activity was a little puzzling, apparently relating more to project management than to the various heavy lifts of change making leadership in the context of complexity. We can see a need to be more clear about which complexities various parties are gearing up to focus on and tackle.


The biggest surprise in the GAPPS competency framework was an absence rather than a presence. Processing through the “5 Units of Competency” and the “22 Elements of Competency” we were struck by the absence of a tangible core activation engine or navigation compass if you prefer that analogy.

It’s not an uncommon absence. In practice we often see well-meaning organizations assembling heaps of rules, instructions, procedures, structures and an encyclopedia of techniques, including research, journal writing, mapping, prototyping, etc. without any meta compass present that reflects the organizations deliberate change making strategy and activates/orients/holds the various parts together.

In the present diminishing attention world there seems to be considerable fascination with the knowing of a grab-bag of discombobulated techniques rather than having actual deep competency mastery in and holistic understanding of how all the pieces fit together. We call the former, the junk drawer approach to innovation tools..:-) Short attention cycle discombobulation has become popular even while acknowledging complexity of challenges being faced.


Regarding the theme of “getting things done” in the face of complexity: What we see organizational leaders most often tasked with and concerned about is driving change in their organization. That is the “doing” they are working hard at actionizing in the context of VUCA drivers. In the face of that doing challenge they are seeking to on-board meaningful, practical advanced skills and tools synchronized to the complexity they now face.

The suggestion by the GAPPS competency framework authors seems to be that systems thinking itself, apparently inclusive of Soft Systems Methodology (SSM), Strategic Options Development Analysis (SODA), etc. constitutes such an activation/navigation engine.

A look across other future competency models suggests that systems thinking is sometimes, but not often included there, much to the dissatisfaction of the systems thinking community no doubt.

UNESCO: Key Competencies 2030 (includes systems thinking)

This GAPPS competency framework document seems to represent an earnest pitch to insert systems thinking into the landscape of future work skills.

We certainly appreciate that Soft Systems Methodology (SSM) has a history, (The Peter Checkland 1981 version was included in our Innovation Methods Mapping book) not as long a history as Creative Problem Solving (CPS) methods, but both have certainly been around through numerous economic and change cycles. Both have strengths and weaknesses in the context of driving change making in complex situations.

For decades CPS has had a large global community working on its continuous methodology evolution. We do ourselves contribute to that continuous evolution. Not so sure if or how Soft Systems Methodologies have evolved since their initial Checkland driven appearance circa 1981.


In closing this Part 1, I will point out that we not only root for systems thinking (not SSM), including it in our practice, we also integrated it into our Tomorrow Schools Model within our most recently published book Rethinking Design Thinking: Making Sense of the Future that has Already Arrived.

Including systems thinking in the mix of competencies is one thing, and assuming it is suitable to be placed in the center of the mix as the activating and orienting engine is quite another. Clearly there are different perspectives on this across the community of practice communities.

Of course in reading the GAPPS competency framework one might ask:

Is looking at complex situations through the lens of systems the same as identifying and addressing the undefined challenges within the systems?

Is “Thinking Holistically” equivalent somehow to problem finding, framing and evolving?

Is upfront assessing, guestimating the complexity of a situation now equivalent to tackling it?

Are the skills needed for the guestimating exercise the same as the skills required for the tackling work?

In our practice world these are different things, each useful, each necessary but since one is not the other, we see value in not having them all mish-mashed together. To us that seems to make sense. Hope this is helpful to our Humantific readers too.

Again big welcome to the new GAPPS Competency Framework and to the Global Alliance for Project Professionals.

Stay tuned for Part 2 Coming Soon!

Image Credits:

Report Cover Image: GAPPS: A Guiding Framework for Leadership in Complexity, 2021, by Global Alliance for the Project Professions.

Today/Tomorrow Future Schools Views Image: Rethinking Design Thinking, 2019 by Humantific.



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