A key to really understanding and embracing complexity is the notion of emergent change: change that is not dictated from the top but arises out of the often unpredictable interactions of people, processes, and systems. We take an emergent approach to the way we work with clients. We work hard to develop a shared commitment to a common intent or purpose, co-design a strategy to achieve that purpose, and then adapt and change as various people engage in that strategy. Therefore, there is no “plan in a box” or pre-determined approach. We have several year's experience and great results with this approach, so it is not without form and wisdom, but it is truly emergent.
After years of working in and thinking about organizations, we passionately believe that looking at organizations metaphorically as ecosystems rather than industrial age “machines” is the key to developing a robust, agile and adaptive culture. This metaphor invites us to see our organizations as complex, adaptive systems in which order emerges when the system has the space for self-correction and when change and compliance are self-generated, based on clearly defined “simple rules”. This leads to an ethic of commitment rather than command-and-control rigidity. It also leads to the reduction of quick-fix solutions as people learn to listen much more closely to the system. Key elements of this approach include:
- Interconnectivity: A system consists of a large number of diverse components, referred to as agents, which may be tightly or loosely interconnected. Any change in one agent’s behaviors has an impact on all other agents, which then has an a resulting impact on the original agent. Bottom line: Relationships are key!
- Autonomy: Agents are not centrally controlled; they have a degree of autonomy but their behavior is always subject to certain laws, rules or norms. This does not mean that there is no role for leadership, but it is dramatically different from the old command-and-control perspective.
- Emergence: Global behavior of a complex system emerges from the interaction of agents and is therefore unpredictable but not random; it generally follows discernible patterns. A key role for leaders to is gain altitude in order to notice and make sense of these emerging patterns.
- Nonequilibrium: Global behavior of a complex system is far from equilibrium because frequent occurrences of disruptive events do not allow the system to return to the equilibrium between two such events.
- Nonlinearity: Relations between agents are nonlinear, which occasionally causes an insignificant input to be amplified into an extreme event, popularly referred to as the “butterfly effect”.
- Self-Organization: A system is capable of self-organizing in response to disruptive events, so they are highly adaptive . Self-organization may also be initiated autonomously by the system in response to a perceived need.
- Co-Evolution: A system irreversibly coevolves with its environment.
A complexity approach challenges the foundational principles on which many organizations have build success in much simpler times: strategic planning, transactional leadership, and a focus on short-term outcomes. Our approach to is deeply informed by a complexity perspective because experience has shown us that it best equips leaders to think about, respond to, and thrive in the constant changes that they experience daily.