Understanding Complexity & Organisations
Why new ways of working? Why agile? Why self-organise? Why distribute decision-making? Why psychologically safe meetings? Why feedback, learning and experimentation cultures? Why not carry on as we are, top-down fashion? These are all good questions. The short answer is our organisations are complex, not linear! And that above all else, their fortunes depend on accepting this reality and on healthy human interactions. To explore this in more detail we’re going to start with some quick-fire European history. I promise this is relevant! Here goes:
BC: In the interest of time we’ll skip BC.
The Roman Period: We’ll fast forward through the Roman period too — it lasted 500 years. They did really well 👍
Middle Ages (C5–15th): Condensing 1000 years into a tweet — Intellectuals were repressed by the church. Any fancy ideas about evolution and such were not welcome.
The Enlightenment (C17–18th): Intellectual energies came to fruition. We’re talking Descartes — reason is the chief source of knowledge; Darwin — evolution trumps creationism; and Newton — cause = effect.
We’re going to hit pause on the history lesson. It’s time for some science because with Newton, science was liberated! Newton helped us to understand the laws of motion and gravitation. He’s one of the most influential scientists of all time. His theories formed the dominant scientific viewpoint for centuries. And he had lovely hair. With Newton’s discoveries, we gained a deeper understanding of what we call linear systems — i.e. a system that we can take apart to understand the behaviour of its elements.
There are some golden rules in linear systems, including:
Order: they are orderly; within them cause = effect. Always.
Reductionism: they can be reduced; the whole is the sum of its parts. Always.
Predictability: once the system’s behaviour is understood, everything within it can be accurately predicted. Always.
Once you understand the workings of the whole system, knowledge stops. The end. There are no surprises in a linear system. Within them, knowledge = order, and greater knowledge = greater order. So, the more you understand a linear system the more control you can have over it. If you understand exactly how it works, then its workings are entirely predictable.
Linear systems exhibit certain characteristics:
Top-down management: they respond well to this.
Industrial assembly line: they follow the same norms as an assembly line.
Universal laws: they follow laws that can be applied at all times and all places.
Examples of linear systems include watches, engines, rockets and industrial assembly lines. An assembly line in a sausage factory is predictable. It will never surprise you one day by producing a burger. And yep, even rocket science is linear! Sure it’s incredibly complicated, but it is orderly and it is predictable. The whole rocket is the sum of its parts, and if we understand how these parts work then we are in complete control. Understanding the whole system (rocket) means we can predict precisely how it will work. We can send them up to space and back and have them land simultaneously, side by side. Check out this SpaceX’s Falcon rocket landing video (30 seconds). It’s mind-blowing. And it’s linear 🚀🚀:
The Newtonian linear thinker’s vision was an orderly universe driven by observable and unchangeable laws. Their mission was to gain all knowledge. They believed that over time the orderly nature of all phenomena would be found. And when that happened, we’d understand the past, know the present, and be able to predict the future! Even in our organisations… because all systems are linear, right?
(I’m looking at you, Finance... And you, Senior Leadership Team, with your reporting fetish and crystal ball fantasy 🔮).
Newtonian linear thinking has much to commend. It lay the foundations for the industrial revolution, during which time the Victorians became phenomenal engineers. They built railways systems, canals, industries. Also schools, hospitals, and organisational systems. Many of these are still with us today! Such success created a high degree of confidence in the power of human reason to tackle any situation.
But Not All Systems Are Linear!
Newtonian thinkers were on a roll, but it was too good to last… After a few centuries, doubts began to emerge over whether all systems are in fact linear. Soon after the Victorian era ended (1901), Einstein happened 💥! His theory of relativity (1905) helped to push conventional wisdom beyond Newtonian limits. It was a direct challenge to orderly thinking.
Einstein’s work, alongside that of several other scientists (most notably Jules Henri Poincaré), showed us that not all systems are linear; that the whole is not necessarily the sum of its parts; and that cause and effect are not always linked. Suddenly, not all phenomena fit the classical framework. Newtonian linear theory was no longer universally applicable — it had to live alongside probabilistic and the unpredictable. Newtonians were livid.
Linear thinking’s weakness was its arrogance, said my wonderfully charismatic complexity lecturer Dr Samir Rihani circa 2005. The Newtonian thinker believed that there was an endpoint to knowledge and that with complete knowledge we could be Gods and control all things.
Linear thinking’s weakness was its arrogance.
If only we could predict and control our politics, our economies, our nations and our organisations... Not to mention our colleagues and even ourselves (think moods, focus, health, wellbeing, rest, productivity, enthusiasm, rest).
The End Of Linear Thinking?
All good things come to an end, right? Sadly not in the case of addressing complex phenomena with linear thinking. Or at least not yet. Even today, proof that all systems aren’t linear is not accepted lightly. Not least in our organisations, most of which refuse to accept that there are new realities in town. This double measure of defiance means we still suffer the hangover from Sir Isaac Nuisance. In spite of the collapse of Newton’s laws in certain spheres, orderly thinking spread to the ‘social sciences’ in the 1950’s and ’60s.
Orderly solutions to complex problems infect our politics, our organisations and our daily lives.
Such defiance has led to extreme suffering — in our economies, our politics, and our organisations, where top-down management is firmly entrenched. See the social ‘sciences’ wanted in on the success of the physical sciences. They were jealous. And it didn’t take a huge intellectual leap to apply the lessons learnt in the physical sciences to the social realm, which adopted the same laws, confidence, optimism and order in their approach. Politics and economics began to identify as sciences 🤔. They are absolutely not.
The upshot: in today’s organisations Newton doesn’t just have a seat on the board, he is often the Chair. This means linear thinking sets the boundaries for what is considered legitimate practice, and this is an enormous problem for our organisations.
Given all that we’ve learnt since his time, how on earth does Newton still manage to have a seat on our organisation’s boards?! One reason is paradigms. Paradigms determine the way that we make sense of the world. They set the boundaries for what is considered legitimate practice. Almost all of us are blissfully unaware that we are working and thinking within the confines of pesky paradigms.
A splash of history again. In the 17th century, Galileo said the earth orbits the sun and is not the centre of the universe. He was absolutely right! Yet he was placed under indefinite house arrest by the Roman Catholic Church in 1633 until his death in 1642. Why? Because he ventured outside the established paradigm of the time.
Paradigms set the boundaries for what is considered legitimate practice.
In short, paradigms have our brains by the balls. And they are largely unknown to the people whose thinking they constrain (this is called ‘paradigm blindness’). The result is that leaders refuse to change course, prescribing only slight variations of failed linear methods because they believe they are on the right track and only need to tweak the current formula. Let’s get a consultant! Ah that didn’t work. Lets get another one! Oh, we’re still broken. Must be the manager, let’s replace them! Then every 4 years or so, I guess we need another restructure… Sound familiar? That’s because most consultants, just like our leaders, only trade in linear thinking. You’ve been warned.
So while there is a new paradigm on the horizon — complexity theory — it’s just emerging verrry slowly.
Complexity was borne out of the physical sciences when Einstein (and others) discovered that not all phenomena play by linear rules and the physical sciences began to distinguish between linear and non-linear systems. Complexity acknowledges that a given cause may lead to more than one outcome. That while we can understand and explain why an event happened earlier today, and given the same situation the same thing may happen tomorrow, the day after something completely different might happen. Because universal laws do not apply to non-linear systems.
Where there is complexity there is emergence, adaptation and uncertainty. Evolution exists in non-linear systems, meaning we cannot predict and control events because the rules can change in ways that we can’t predict. The only thing that’s certain about complex systems is that they are unpredictable. The implication of this is that humans cannot control all things — we cannot be Gods, as Newtonians had believed.
Non-linear phenomena reflect the uncertainty and complexity of most social phenomena, including our organisations.
Complexity dislodges current management theory by accepting that organisations are complex adaptive systems. Within this type of system cause and effect are not necessarily linked, so top-down management is a poor fit.
In a complex adaptive system, we cannot predict or control what will happen with certainty because of the sheer number of random interactions within the system. As with linear systems, there are some golden rules, including:
Complex adaptive systems can produce emergent properties.
They are open-ended, capable of uncertain and lengthy evolution.
We can’t predict with certainty what will happen within them.
Cause does not = effect.
The whole is not the sum of its parts.
Control is limited.
The only thing that is certain about complex systems is that they are unpredictable.
Examples of complex adaptive systems include the weather, traffic, and ecosystems. Also our children, our cities, our pets, our partners, our organisations and ourselves. Within complex adaptive systems, it isn’t possible to take actions that will guarantee a desired outcome. So top-down management is not well suited to them, and your boss, your team, your whole organisation really need to realise this in order to function effectively.
Well, it’s too late to bludgeon Newton to death with a bag of apples and in any case, he was right about loads of stuff. Linear isn’t all wrong, it’s just we have more information now, and complexity can explain more stuff better.
Linear systems and complex systems coexist.
Today’s organisations, unlike some of their predecessors in the industrial revolution, are complex adaptive systems and we need to treat them as such. This means no longer treating them like machines and waiting for the right combination of levers to be pulled in order to achieve a given outcome. Organisations are not technical problems that require technical solutions. We cannot treat an ecosystem as if it was an engineering problem.
So we need a fresh approach to management. One that recognises organisations are complex adaptive systems and that their development goes beyond economic growth and embraces human development. If people are not free to interact in a healthy and informed way then an organisation’s development — both economic and human — will likely stall. We must focus on creating the healthy human interactions that linear top-down approaches tend to stifle as they seek to install, by force, the conditions that are perceived as necessary for success.
Management is much simpler when we understand the nature of the system we are working with.
Complexity takes a different tack. It seeks to facilitate the means and not the ends by seeding the conditions that allow the ends (a thriving team or organisation) to emerge and evolve through experimentation and adaptation. Top-down management tends to repress this type of approach, wasting enormous amounts of energy trying to control what cannot be controlled and force what cannot be forced. When we apply complexity to organisations we finally reject the linear principles that have misguided us for so long.
Once we abandon the illusion that our organisations are orderly and accept the humbling limits of knowledge, a new style of leadership can emerge. One that embraces uncertainty, mistakes, learning and adaptation.
Patterns Found in Progressive Organisations
There is no silver bullet when it comes to finding an approach that will work for our organisations. Successful organisations do not swallow the same pill. Indeed, the remedy for one organisation might well be fatal for another. However, there are patterns found in progressive organisations that understand the nature of the system they are working with. Their leaders:
Establish a healthy meeting culture.
Understand psychological safety.
Create and constantly tend to a culture of feedback.
Are comfortable distributing authority and decision-making.
Intentionally move control to where the information is.
Ensure everyone is clear about the roles they are playing.
Become interested in how organisational culture can drive behaviour.
Look to create participatory organisations with high trust.
Have an experimental mindset, realising little is certain.
Realise that in complex systems it is very hard to plan, so they plan for experimentation.
Try lots of things and double down on what’s working.
Self-organisation is emergent, it cannot be made to happen with force. Though we can seek to encourage its emergence by leading in the ways listed above. This will steer us towards patterns such as distributed decision making, trust, participation, active listening, transparency, self-organising teams, being purpose-led, and a culture of feedback, experimentation, and learning — patterns that can only emerge if people are free to interact and capable of interacting.
So What’s The Take-Away?
If you recall just one thing from these words later on in your day let it be this 🙏:
Organisations are complex, not linear! And above all else, their fortunes depend on accepting this reality and on healthy human interactions.
Accepting this reality and treating our organisations as complex adaptive systems makes our lives much easier, as Complexity provides a framework within which organisations can be advanced more efficiently. It means letting go of our deeply entrenched tendencies to attempt to predict and control what cannot be predicted or controlled.
And What Can You Do About All This?
Well, tomorrow, you can:
Organise a lunch and learn to watch the talk below (45 mins). I know of no better introduction to new ways of working that embrace complexity.
After watching the video, discuss new practices you would like to try and old practices you would like to stop. You can try a circle discussion for this.
Seek to agree on a time-bound, safe to fail experiment — try a new process, practice or pattern to see if it helps, or remove something that’s getting in the way of healthy human interactions.
Get a date in the diary to evaluate the experiment and to agree on a new one. You’ll find some inspiration here.
Remember that your organisation is, and always will be, a complex adaptive system.
Experimenting with new and progressive ways of working isn’t easy, but it is worthwhile. So please, do try this at work. And reach out if you would like any help.
Much of what you read comes from my dusty university notes from the lectures delivered by Dr Samir Rihani at the University of Liverpool around 2004/05. Sami is the best educator I have ever encountered.
Thanks also to Aaron Dignan for your inspiring Brave New Work book and talk.