Complexity: embrace or co-opt?

Chris Rodgers makes some good points about how ideas about complexity get translated – and watered down – in organisations.

…many of the arguments put forward simply clothe conventional management ‘wisdom’ in the language of complexity – accepting consciously or unconsciously the taken-for-granted assumptions of choice control and predictability on which the former is based.

It’s so easy to fit morph new ideas to fit our existing world view and convince ourselves that we’re up on the latest thinking. I’m reminded of my favourite spiritual saying: “God spake the truth, and the Devil said this is great, I’m going to organise this and call it religion.” (Actually, the infusion of spirituality into the discussion is one of things Chris looks at critically.)

He argues

First, there is a tendency to see self-organization as a design choice, rather than as a natural dynamic of organization. As such it is usually positioned as a more enlightened, more participative (and sometimes even ‘democratic’) alternative to the top-down imposition of decisions. This leads to prescriptions that call for the introduction of structures, systems and processes that ‘enable’ self-organization (such as reduced hierarchy, networked organizational forms, ‘a few simple rules’, etc). But self-organization happens! And it happens continuously.

This feels like an important argument. It’s very easy to rail against the stupidity of bureaucracy and the stuckness of organisation – I do it a lot of the time. But in doing so, we’re likely to miss the opportunities that exist to try something new to tilt the system – it’s not actually quite as rigid as it appears. I sometimes find myself saying that even the most frustrating conversation might be just one question or expression away from a more interesting one. This might be what Chris points at when he says

the asymmetrical nature of the patterning process means that the possibility always exists for ‘pattern-switching’ to occur and novel practices to emerge.

He goes on to point to the folly of assuming we can solve complexity; I think we can try new stuff out but we have to accept the consequences are unpredictable.

I think this connects to Chris’ next observation:

Another way that this perspective is made manifest is through the reification (or ‘thingifying’) of organization. People imbue the ‘it’ of organization with ‘mind, energy, heart, soul and will’. And these are conceived as existing separately from the everyday actions and interactions of ordinary people.

As I see it, If we do that, we make the organisation something unnatural and other than us, requiring some dramatic shift for it to change. But if we see it as actually a very natural byproduct of our very human interactions, we might look for more modest but real changes that we can make. Chris takes a swipe at the way big set piece events are proposed by consultants in the name of transforming the organisation. That resonates for me. I see Big Meetings planned to make Big Changes, but they often become an excuse to do nothing about change between now and the planned Big Meeting. The Big Meeting itself often just reinforces a lot of familiar organisational tropes and the desired change is actually avoided, rather than advanced.

Chris proposes some alternative ways of living with complexity. I might blog some more thoughts about that in another post.

1 thought on “Complexity: embrace or co-opt?

  1. Earl Mardle

    The complexity thing, which I think I get, reminds me of the Zen mantra that first there is a mountain, then there is no mountain, then there is.

    Right now we are stuck in the second phase; we KNOW that everything is complex, we feel that, if only we could understand it we could “apply” it, which is another way of saying “use it”, especially to control things.

    But we can’t. There is no way to communicate complexity because all communication involves exclusion, just as all perception excludes the “normal” so as not to be overwhelmed by the universe.

    Complexity, on the other hand, is additive, it includes everything, it has no boundaries, anything and everything can participate and there is no way to know what will participate, nor how, nor what the results are going to be.

    A couple of months ago I read the One Straw Revolution about Masanobu Fukuoka and one quote sticks with me, and makes me well up each time I think of it. He says, “its OK not to understand”.

    There is a huge relief in being aware of how little I know and how little I CAN know and how little of what I know I can understand, and yet for that to be OK.

    It doesn’t mean we stop learning or observing, Fukuoka is all about constant observation at a level that most of us can’t begin to accomplish. But when we reach a limit of understanding, sometimes, often, it is better to wait a little and to realise that its OK.

    His work has been almost impossible to replicate because most people can’t spend enough time being present in their landscape to notice the things they need to enable them to do a better job; to allow nature in that exact place, to work better towards the things we need.

    His stuff is not a system that can be applied, it is only a way to be and unless you can get that, nothing else will follow. Oh, and he started out with massive and persistent failure with no guarantee that he would escape from that cycle.

    As usual, there is a survivorship bias, perhaps many others tried what he did but their failures resulted in starvation.

    Complexity also has teeth.


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