March 27, 2017

On mayonnaise and survival

MayonnaiseI recently attended the 4th International Conference for Responsible Leadership, hosted at Gibs by the Albert Luthuli Centre for Responsible Leadership (University of Pretoria).  One of the highlights was getting the chance to facilitate a panel discussion on Complexity Leadership in South Africa with a group of highly respected local and international academics.

Another was Mary Uhl-Bien's keynote on Complexity Leadership.  There is so much to write about, but for now I'll focus on an interesting question that emerged for me while listening to her talk.  Complexity involves rich interconnectivity, i.e. when things/agents interact in ways such that they fundamentally change each other and something entirely different and unpredictable emerges from the interaction.  Paul Cilliers used the following analogy: a jumbo jet is complicated (it is equal to the sum of it's parts), mayonnaise is complex (once mixed, you can't separate the parts out again and they are fundamentally changed by the interaction).  In other words, complex systems are subject to co-evolution and once it happens, it's irreversable.

I've haven't used this analogy broadly as mayonnaise is not illustrative of complex Adaptive systems (CAS) such as social or ecological systems.  Here, the agents in the system (and the system as a whole) are able to adapt to changing conditions both internal and external to the system - i.e. they are able to learn and adapt.   According to Mary, threat of death is a catalyst for a complex system becoming a complex adaptive system.  I've been pondering this statement ever since I heard it.  I'm not sure I fully agree with it, but it is certainly interesting!  I'm wondering if a system is inherently a CAS (by nature), or if adaptivity is conditional?  Be that as it may ... When I test the idea with the corporate groups I work with, there is normally a very enthusiastic response: We are Mayonnaise!  It seems an apt metaphor for those frustrated with the inertia and overall lack of responsiveness that hampers many of our large organisations.

It does beg the question though: will it take a near death experience for organisations (or rather the people who lead them) to snap out of their inertia and start doing things differently?  Is that the only thing that will bring about the mindset shift required to thrive in the VUCA world?  I'm optimistic that their are ways of pre-emptively building adaptive capacity into our organisations, some of which I've been successfully experimenting with recently.   I'd love to hear your thoughts on this - so feel free to comment or pop me an email.

One comment on “On mayonnaise and survival”

  1. Mary's comment is interesting if it's applied to human systems. I don't see it applying to a non-human complex system. For example, a tornado is a complex system which thankfully does die.

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