Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Complexity Approach - A new perspective on organizations?

When in the past, people discovered and created the clock, this new technology had great impact on the way they started seeing things. The clock, as concept, was used to understand other phenomena, such as our body, the movement of the planets, etc. As a model, it helped people conceptualize and understand things, which was great. But also – it limited their view (a model is less than reality). With the discovery of the computer, we did the same thing. Powerful, but we ran into difficulties, trying to explain, for instance, our brain-function, with the simplified concept of computer-concepts. Not everything was as deterministic as we needed, to apply the computer-concept.

More hidden, with the “discovery” of systems thinking, we have done the same. System thinking has lead to great conceptual tools, to….

  • Divide the complex reality in parts, that are interconnected, and as group, can be seen as a new part of a large system
  • Define “control” as a concept, where a part is steered (plan-do-check-act) by a “managing part”

This thinking and tools have helped us understand, model, realize and operate complex structures, such as IT-systems. Of course, we have used these concepts for other complex areas. So we started to use this in our view of organizations. And that’s where things started to become messy.
Are organizations systems? Are groups of people able to be divided in parts, where some parts are planning and controlling others, measuring output, and intervening when needed, to get the desired results? Or it this view limiting? Possibly even dangerous?

Last Friday, I visited an interesting seminar on a new approach to view (and intervene in) organizations: the Complexity Approach (or also known as Complex Responsive Processes). Some of the key people involved with this new view were present: Ralph Stacey, Douglas Griffin and Thijs Homan. In addition, Nol Groot (former director of the NS, the Dutch Railways) was present, as one of the people that have actively applied this new view in the NS).

Their research in organizations suggested that the system’s approach to organizations is limited. And that it had lead to surreal mythical set of beliefs in leadership and the ability to control and change the performance of an organization. A new view is needed.

So they decided to step back, and try to look at organizations in a fresh way: how are things done here, actually, really? What do we really experience?

This lead to the following observations:

  • People interact with other people (usually not the whole organization, but a smaller set) in varying interaction patterns. These “local patterns” (or “self-organizing collectives”) might be totally different than the formal organization structure (they may be based on friendship, identity, role, process, etc).
  • This is also true for managers (although in larger meetings they might send a lot, but is essence they don’t know how people interpret their message), breaking one myth “the manager knows all, oversees everything”
  • These local interaction patterns emerge – they are not created “by design” but appear and develop over time, through complex influences
  • Through interaction patterns, people get informed, negotiate and decide, based on their plans, intentions (I want....). In these patterns people confirm their values.
  • These interactions (or “interplays of intention”) produce results. Interaction patterns lead to meaning, changed attitudes, conflict, choices, activity and constraints. However, these results might not be the ones that the people had intended upfront (and might not be in line with manager’s plans and intentions!)
    Example: two people want to eat together, and end up at a Italian restaurant, while neither had that in mind at the start
  • One of the results of local patterns are so-called “social objects”: agreements on how people should behave and perform activities in certain situations.

An example:

  • A manager gets his unit in the central hall, and tells them that the organization needed to be more customer-friendly. He explains his plans, and communicates that he expects everyone to commit to the plans.
  • People leave the hall, and in various complex interaction patterns, the view of the manager is given meaning, mixed with history (“we have done this before”) and own intentions, in various groups of people. Each group will develop their own meaning, interpretation. And the “company-wide plan” becomes a myth.
  • And change might come, yet not predictable, and maybe even in despite of all change management efforts

This new view leads to a number of important (and maybe even scary) questions:

  • Can a manager “be in control”, if activity and change is dependent on complex interaction patterns which are mostly unpredictable?
  • Is change “manageable”?
  • Is “resistance to change” something we see as a sign that our plans have not been executed enough yet, something that we need “to handle” and then reach success in the end?
  • Can we speak of organization? Or is it more a network of people (with endless dynamics in interconnections)? Can we speak of organization boundaries? Or again – complex interactions with people “inside” and “outside”?
  • Is an organization a set of local patterns of interaction?

(These questions resonate with various uneasy feelings I have about BPM and the "organization-people-process-by-design" myth, it implicitely suggests)

Yet, organizations seem to work, sometimes even great. So, the key question is: if an organization does not function well, what can we do as managers (and for me, as consultant)?
Some of my starting points:

  • Many instruments of intervention can still be applied. Be aware that interventions however produce non-predictable results (and non-linear: a small intervention might explode through all interaction patterns, a large intervention might be reduced to nothing....)
  • The process of giving meaning (how people perceive the need for change and the desired outcomes) is very difficult to manage. Even through various facilitation workshops, etc, people will have a “on-stage” face and a “off-stage” face. And the “off-stage face” will influence many people in their networks. In a typical organization many “clouds of meaning” might exist around certain themes. However, meaning is often given by fixed groups, based on their intentions and history. Investigation and narrative interventions could help here.
  • Be very aware of the existence of the (emerging) patterns, through all networks (visible, invisible). These “cells of people” have large influence. If needed (and possible), intervene in this patterns (for instance: break up the organization in smaller teams, build relations, make sure teams interact with each other, as a manager participate on one or more local groups, getting their respect)
  • Develop the ability/competency of people to effectively perform local patterns of interaction, and support them by providing clear intentions (on WHAT is needed, not HOW). Help them to be able to address concerns within the group. And become connected!
  • Become aware of the “social objects”, and how these objects are created and changed. Who has influence? Through what patterns?
  • Change occurs through interacting cells, that see the need for change, form new ideas and create new social objects.

This complexity approach is interesting stuff, which will probably have a large impact on how I see organizations, change, but also BPM! There is much more I could write, but let’s stop for now!
Ok, one last thought for us, consultants: We often see our project (which is a change intervention!) as a set of people, doing the planned activities. During the project, often “fuss”, “discussion”, “resistance” is born and needs to be handled. Often, I saw this stuff as uneasy, difficult, nagging stuff, that was extra effort and thus delayed the project. But maybe this stuff IS THE REAL the project!?

For more information on the Complexity Approach, see for instance:

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