Seven implications of complexity for organisations

My last post was about Paul Cilliers’s 7 characteristics of complex systems.  In this post I want to explore 7 of the implications of complexity that he thought was important for those working in and on organisations  (his original text is in italics).

1.Since the nature of a complex organization is determined by the interaction between its members, relationships are fundamental. This does not mean that everybody must be nice to each other; on the contrary. For example, for self-organization to take place, some form of competition is a requirement (Cilliers, 1998: 94-5). The point is merely that things happen during interaction, not in isolation.

This is a point we often forget when we work with organisations, leading us to focus too much effort on trying to change people and their behaviour by telling or training them in how to be.  The nature of the interactions between inviduals, groups and their environment in large part determine the prevailing culture.  Therefore, if we want to for example have more innovation in our organisations, focusing on changing the connectedness (making people more or less proximate to each other or changing the environment to increase the likelihood of serendipitous encounters) and shifting the nature of interactions ( e.g. how we conduct meetings) will have a greater impact than trying to train people to be more creative or collaborative.

2. Complex organizations are open systems. This means that a great deal of energy and information flows through them, and that a stable state is not desirable.

In a world that has come to see stability, certainty and predictability as normal and change as something that needs to be controlled and managed, this implication of complexity creates a lot of anxiety.  Fact is though that organisations and cultures, like water, become stagnant and unhealthy without continuous movement and change.

3. Being open more importantly also means that the boundaries of the organization are not clearly defined. Statements of “mission” and “vision” are often attempts to define the borders, and may work to the detriment of the organization if taken too literally. A vital organization interacts with the environment and other organizations. This may (or may not) lead to big changes in the way the organization understands itself. In short, no organization can be understood independently of its context.

The same goes for people and roles, we simply cannot ever ignore context, whether inside or outside of our perceived boundaries.  Roles are a co-evolution of the individual and the system, similarly organisations play a certain role in an industry or broader economic context.  Making sense of identity boundaries and the exchanges across those boundaries are therefore critical in our understanding of the current state on any level of the system.

4. Along with the context, the history of an organization co-determines its nature. Two similar-looking organizations with different histories are not the same. Such histories do not consist of the recounting of a number of specific, significant events. The history of an organization is contained in all the individual little interactions that take place all the time, distributed throughout the system.

This is one of the reasons why practices and solutions don’t travel well between contexts – for example, in Johannesburg three of South Africa’s big banks are situated within less than a kilometer from each other.  Even though they share geography and industry, these are very different organisations with very different cultures and dispositions.  Assuming that a practice that works in one will work in the other is dangerous, nevermind assuming it would work in the insurance company down the road.  The unique starting conditions and evolutionary trajectory of each organisation determines it’s current state and current evolutionary path, we need to honor this unique context when we engage with them.

5. Unpredictable and novel characteristics may emerge from an organization. These may or may not be desirable, but they are not by definition an indication of malfunctioning. For example, a totally unexpected loss of interest in a well-established product may emerge. Management may not understand what caused it, but it should not be surprising that such things are possible. Novel features can, on the other hand, be extremely beneficial. They should not be suppressed because they were not anticipated.

The emergent nature of complex adaptive systems often manifests in unintended consequences or behaviour that seem irrational.  Carefully designed future states, however well intentioned very seldom realise, and similarly carefully crafted strategies seldom get implemented as planned.  In complex systems we really need to embrace provisionality and be open to adapting our plans and designs as new paths emerge.  Remaining open to emergence, and holding plans lightly remain one of the biggest challenges to overcome in organisations used to command and control.

6. Because of the nonlinearity of the interactions, small causes can have large effects. The reverse is, of course, also true. The point is that the magnitude of the outcome is not only determined by the size of the cause, but also by the context and by the history of the system. This is another way of saying that we should be prepared for the unexpected. It also implies that we have to be very careful. Something we may think to be insignificant (a casual remark, a joke, a tone of voice) may change everything. Conversely, the grand five-year plan, the result of huge effort, may retrospectively turn out to be meaningless. This is not an argument against proper planning; we have to plan. The point is just that we cannot predict the outcome of a certain cause with absolute clarity.

This is a lesson global retailer H&M recently learned the hard way.  One image in an entire catalog of a young black boy with a seemingly innocent slogan printed on it created a global outcry from communities who deemed the slogan to be racist.  In South Africa, this one T-shirt led to H&M stores being trashed by members of a confrontational political party.  In another culture, where racial dynamics are not as prominent as here, no-one may have noticed the T-shirt; but something seemingly small, in the right conditions created a inordinate amount of damage to the brand.  This non-linearity can however be harnessed: small local changes could lead to very big shifts in the bigger system i.e. small, context appropriate actions taken by supervisors or team leads could impact the culture of the entire organisation.  It is a small rudder that determines the direction of even the largest ship.

7. Complex organizations cannot thrive when there is too much central control. This certainly does not imply that there should be no control, but rather that control should be distributed throughout the system. One should not go overboard with the notions of self-organization and distributed control. This can be an excuse not to accept the responsibility for decisions when firm decisions are demanded by the context. A good example here is the fact that managers are often keen to “distribute” the responsibility when there are unpopular decisions to be made—like retrenchments—but keen to centralize decisions when they are popular.

This notion of central vs distributed control is becoming more and more salient in modern organisations.  Managing knowledge workers who need to be intrinsically motivated is very different from managing factory workers who perform routine tasks.  As automation impacts on the routine tasks that still remain in modern workplaces, enabling autonomy, meaningful work and the opportunity to continuously learn and grow will become more and more important.  It is therefore imperative that this dynamic between central and decentralised control is managed well.  New organisatonal forms are emerging,  attempting to find solutions to this conundrum.  What has become clear though is that  there is no one-size-fits all recipe to achieve this.  My own work has focused very much on helping organisations find their own fit-for-context ways of enabling local autonomy while maintaining overall coherence.  A key shift we need to make in this regard is to move away from seeking alignment, toward enabling coherent organisations.

I hope this exploration has been useful.  I find the more I read and re-read the work of pioneering thinkers like Prof Cilliers, the more richness I discover.  I will continue this exploration in future posts, so if you find it of value, make sure you subscribe to this blog.

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9 thoughts on “Seven implications of complexity for organisations

  1. Coherence is a powerful word. Its use here makes sense. I struggle to articulate its nature or significance though. Is there anything on that to which you could refer? I am not interested in a dictionary definition but rather a discussion of the way its presence or absence manifests in systems.

    1. Stephen, I can completely relate. I use it more and more, but find I need to explain it and often find myself at a loss other than ‘it makes sense’. It seems easier to explain incoherence eg without enabling constraints a group of musicians make noise (incoherent) not music (coherent). I wonder if the notiok of something being ‘recognisable’ could be useful? So if a system’s identity remains coherent over time, even if it changes significantly it remains recognisable? Thos would be a useful conversation to have, maybe we can learn together.

    2. You might want to look at Thagard’s book of the same name. I normally illustrate it this – evolutionary theory is in many ways wrong but is coherent, while creationism is incoherent. Sufficient to move forwards ….

      1. Not really an illustration I can use authentically 🙂
        Also not sure how it applies to describing an organisation eg identity remaining coherent over time, or while allowing local diversity.

          1. So there is something there about coherence having to do with being ‘recognisable’ despite difference?

  2. This question of coherence is still running at the back of my mind. Without suggesting adoption of any of them, here are some interpretations of the term from a few diverse fields that might conjure up a useful sense of the phenomenon.

    – Coherence in a paragraph is the technique of making words, phrases, and sentences move smoothly and logically from one to the other. In other words, the ideas are so interwoven and “glued” together that the reader will be able to see the consistent relationship between them.

    – Definition. Coherence is a term of text linguistics used to refer to sense relations between single units (sentences or propositions) of a text. Due to these relations, the text appears to be logically and semantically consistent for the reader-hearer.

    – Coherence is one of the unique properties of laser light. It arises from the stimulated emission process which provides the amplification. Since a common stimulus triggers the emission events which provide the amplified light, the emitted photons are “in step” and have a definite phase relation to each other.

    Significant words cannot usually be replaced with simple definitions. Perhaps the most useful sense of coherence is what emerges in one’s mind from exposure to several domain specific definitions such as this.

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