I spend my work life helping leaders who are facing massive surges of complexity and trying to figure out the new ways to lead there. They have changes in what the market rewards, what the public demands, and what it means for an organisation to add value right now. So it surprised me to see how much I had to learn about complexity from meandering around Europe with my husband and our two teenagers in July.

Learning a new language is exhausting

I mean physically tiring as well as mentally exhausting. A new language creates whole new patterns of thought and action.

We studied at a cool French school in Sancerre for a week, and tried to speak French to one another, other classmates, and to all the lovely folks in the shops and restaurants. Often we were at a loss for words in any language as we lost our ability to put sentences together.

I got a new sympathy for what it means to learn complex ideas and language from scratch. As we play in a complex world, it seems as if the rules and grammar of our regular language have changed and there is a whole new way to combine our nouns (what we see) and verbs (what we do).

We need to be gentle on ourselves as we learn this new language. We also need to be patient with others, as they struggle to understand something that might be as obvious to us. And, as we learned in Sancerre, nothing increases the capacity to tolerate the frustration of a new language like bread, cheese, and a cold glass of white wine.

‘Safe-to-fail’ is in the eyes of the beholder

 Because it’s my family and I’m a complexity geek, we use ideas like ‘safe-to-fail’ in everyday conversation. One thing we learned after being together on holiday was that different things felt safe-to-fail to each of us:

  • A fancy French restaurant with an expensive ‘prix fix’ menu that perhaps one or more of us could hate seemed safe to fail to the kids but not the adults.
  • A city tour that might be fascinating or boring, and would take a couple of hours seemed safe-to-fail to the adults but not the kids.
  • A ‘short cut’ that didn’t quite show up on Google maps but reminded us of a street we took yesterday − seemed like a good idea to my partner and me but a less good idea to those whose feet were hurting after hours of walking on cobblestones.

Whenever you use the safe-to-fail test, you have to negotiate about what is safe and where the boundaries are. Different people will have different appetites and protect different things.

On holiday, we got to know each other’s boundaries, which was a good and a bad thing. We probably stayed farther and farther away from the edges because we assumed that ‘this idea’ wouldn’t be appealing to the others.

This seems an important lesson for teams to be aware of. If we assume others’ boundaries too often, we might lose our ability to play at the edges.

You can’t know which one is going to be ‘the one’

Perhaps my key desire to go to France in July was to see lavender fields. We set out one day and drove and drove until we found our first field − right where the guidebook had told us (and hundreds of other tourists).  And, it was lovely and I was cheerful and we took pictures.

We then set off down the next road and stumbled across a bigger field; also lovely but less crowded, so we got out and took pictures there. Next we went down another, more random road, and saw a bigger field and, yep, I hopped out and took more pictures.

All of these places were lovely and all of the pictures are fine.

And then … we rounded another corner and were overcome by lavender fields that weren’t lavender at all, but aubergine − a deep and brilliant purple so thick and rich we might have been looking at a velvet cloak tossed over the hills by a giant. We got out and stood in the fields and smelled the lavender and listened to the bees and understood the very essence of ‘purpleness’ in a new way.

This rings true about complexity. The planning and charting course that brings you into a known space might be a little, well, crowded and disappointing. It takes some stumbling around to get off the beaten track of what others have done before to find a new path to a new place of beauty and possibility.