Complexity is hard to explain. Well it would be wouldn’t it? Making such a set of ideas applicable in a practical way to the everyday life of an organisation is a challenge. It isn’t that complexity is strange to us – after all it is something we are dealing with all the time.
If you’ve recently spent the Christmas period dealing with the dynamics of family and friends, there is probably little anyone could tell you about complexity. Although it is understandable to feel overwhelmed by it, and to try and ignore it, as something just too difficult to face, it maybe possible to learn to deal with it better, and to use it as part of our strategies for change If we treat the organisation as a machine-like entity, it is pretty clear what to do. You make a project plan and enact it with all the good disciplines that this entails. Job done. But then life happens, and in the words of the Yiddish proverb, ‘People make plans and God laughs’. The project plan method is easy to teach, and convincing, because, on paper at least, it has an answer to everything. It gives the leader/manager an unassailable sense of control, and a sense of control is a priceless commodity. Indeed it is so valuable to leaders that they will sacrifice the business for it. But a sense of control isn’t the same as actual control, and plans on paper alone aren’t worth anything except as firelighters. Everyone knows that planned change is basically bankrupt as a philosophy, at least in isolation. Coupled however with an understanding of Complexity, plans are valuable, as long as what works isn’t sacrificed for the sake of them.
Meanwhile, the conundrum still remains – how do we give leaders their hugely valued sense of control whilst respecting the seeming vagaries of complexity and emergent change? They need to feel like they can convince others they are in the driving seat, and yet what they are driving is as uncertain as the weather. OD people have worked with this conundrum for some time and there is some useful guidance out there. Read Leadership and the New Science by Meg Wheatley for example, or Changing Conversations in Organizations by Patricia Shaw. Or anything by Gregory Bateson. The problem is partly one of mind-set, rather than a lack of good thinking. Convincing those in power that they can get away with the de-compartmentalisation, the de-laying of hierarchies, the openness and flexibility that a complexity approach implies is a big ask. It isn’t going to happen overnight. Meanwhile, like methadone to the addict, we need to find some short-term salves that ease their discomfort.
It strikes me that one such salve is in emergence. This is a central, and often-misunderstood tenet of complexity. It is a far more compelling and indeed, beautiful a concept than is often implied; that is, as a vague assertion that we should just ‘see what happens.’ This is how it works: organic systems, unlike machines, have properties in them that are simply surprising. These properties are not ‘designed in’ but appear unpredictably, as a result of complex interactions. To understand this, let’s consider a mechanical system, like a jet engine for example. It works in a predictable way (more or less), even though it is a complicated, but not a complex –(in a mathematical sense) machine. What’s the difference between complicated and complex? It’s the maths. Those governing the jet are linear: more fuel, more air, more thrust, more speed. Up to a point where the system reaches its maximum capacity, which again, is a more or less mathematically predictable point. It cannot suddenly do something it wasn’t designed to do, (i.e. mathematically speaking, work in a non-linear way), like start humming Beatles tracks, or spontaneously decide it is sad.
Complex systems, however, rely on non-linear maths, and work in unpredictable ways. One key principle of this maths is that small variations in conditions can result in big differences of outcomes; hence the old adage that a butterfly flapping its wings can set in train the beginnings of a hurricane. (Notice we don’t say ‘cause a hurricane’, as ‘cause and effect’ are one of the simplistic propositions that non-linear maths challenges).
In complex systems some interactions produce results that could never be predicted by anyone putting together the individual components. Take a neuron (i.e. a brain cell) for example – on its own it is complex enough, but put together with others and make a brain and then put a number of these brains together and you have…Well, 30,000 years ago, in Africa, you had art. This art was an emergent property of complex neural networks, constituting complex brains, working with other complex brains. In ethno-palaeontology (the study of early human culture), it is now understood that it took a critical mass of human population to create the ‘modern mind’, of which cave paintings are an artefact. Picasso would have said that those paintings denoted an understanding of life in some ways as advanced as anything we have now.
Yet the received wisdom these days is that in Africa, such a complex mind was an emergent property of multiple brains that first appeared 60,000 years ago, then disappeared, then emerged again, 20,000-30,000 or so years later. This suggests it was the density of brains, in collected populations of humanity (perhaps wiped out by some plague and then gradually recuperating in numbers) that created the emergent properties of a ‘modern mind’.
So emergence is an unpredictable wonder of complex nature – you could never have designed art into the components of brains, but what you can do, once it has emerged, is institute it, and this, crucially, has an impact on what happens next. Let’s look at this carefully: neurons, together, make brains – brains have the emergent property of social intelligence, and then that social intelligence is harnessed through institutions that, in a feedback loop, make a new system with new emergent properties. Brains make words, words make books, books are instituted into libraries, libraries become the basic metaphor that emerges, a few thousand years later, into the Internet. The internet encourages social networking, as an emergent property of a new complex system.
Emergence, begets institution, begets further emergence. We can’t control what emerges but we can enhance it through the careful construction of institutions. Now these institutions don’t have to be grand places with stone pillars outside – instituting things is something we do all the time – it can be a small thing, like a club, a working group, a recipe, a marriage, or even a conversation regularly conducted, like good coaching.
We often see examples of emergent properties being instituted in big cities. Again the density of population enhances the connectivity of the system and speeds up emergence. Take the ‘baby on board badges pregnant travellers wear on crowded trains. These emerged, somewhat spontaneously as a fad in various cities around the world, and were instituted by Transport for London in the last few years. This wasn’t invented, plan-fully by a committee, but was an emergent phenomenon, instituted by an organisation to enhance its service.
So back to our control-addicted leaders. Whilst we cannot help them predict change and control it, we can support them to enact the emergent properties of the system they are in, to institute new ‘containers’ (to use a piece of complexity jargon) that could, albeit unpredictably, encourage the emergence of the things they like (or say they like), like productivity, creativity, innovation, and so on.
An example: Years ago I ran a photo agency. This was in the days when many agencies, like ourselves, were making the move from analogue to digital systems. In order to do so, we had to commission a comprehensive digital indexing, filing, search and service system that was at the edge of what the technology then allowed. (This was in the days when windows were simply things you looked out of, and to access the internet you still needed a telephone-shaped modem). We went through several false starts, commissioning IT systems from large IT suppliers, that simply failed to do the job. We had wasted thousands of pounds. One day we were chatting with a colleague with whom we worked, who ran another agency, lamenting about how fed up we were at being sold a dud by IT companies who didn’t understand the complexity of what we were asking for until it was too late. We had the idea that, along with them, we could develop a bespoke system for our own use. Although we developed this with them out of exasperation, a comprehensive system emerged that went on to become the global industry standard for photo agencies. This system became the basic product of a totally new business.
What does this say that leaders can do to work with emergence? What it suggests is that such happy ‘accidents’ aren’t the by-products of good leadership – noticing them, nurturing them and instituting them should be the core strategy. Sometimes leaders may even diminish the importance of emergent innovations because they weren’t part of the ‘carefully planned’ strategy – this is a big mistake. The Harvard Professor of Strategy, Henry Mintzberg, in his book Strategy Bites Back, tells the story that in the 1970s, Honda Motorcycles broke in, and then took a huge portion of the motorbike market in the U.S., simply by pursuing an emergent strategy of Sales Managers pootling around Los Angeles, from meeting to meeting, inadvertently showing off their nifty ‘50cc cub’ motorcycles. Meanwhile U.S. manufactures were pursuing the top-down, ‘planned’ strategy that market research showed people only wanted to buy big motorbikes. Of course, when you think about it, this error does make sense. If you ask someone who buys bikes what sort of bike they dream of riding, they may well answer “a big, fat Harley D.” But if you look at what bike they may buy to help them get around town with their shopping, or deliver pizza by, it may well be a little Cub, although they may be loathe to admit it!
Leaders can work together to identify the emerging properties of the system and find ways of instituting them. It will give them a sense of control, and that means they will relax a bit, and let the system get on with doing what it does best – emerging new things, unpredictably.
So a key question for leaders, for you, for anyone as the New Year turns – what’s emerging around you, that you are seeking to institute, big or small?