Posts Tagged "complexity"

on Dec 11, 2018 in Blog

Journeying into the unknown Organisational change is a journey into the unknown, along changing terrain. Finding your way in that changing terrain requires (i) new understanding about the dynamic patterning of change; (ii) new processing skills of sensemaking and learning; and (iii) new tools to help people in the midst of on-going change to notice and interpret what is changing in their organisation. Organisations wishing to get on the front foot in change can develop these new change capabilities in leaders at all levels to aid them in navigating into the unknown. Let’s imagine that you’re setting out to travel somewhere you’ve never been before. Actually, no one has ever been there before. So, what do you do? Do you gather together all the information you have about your destination and plan a route to get there? Do you set off in the general direction, and try to work out the detail as you go along? Or perhaps you don’t even worry too much about where you’re going, you just set off and then take whatever turn looks most interesting. Organisational change is much like travelling somewhere new. Every organisational change journey is unique. No one else will start from where you are, no one else will end up where you do, and no one else will take exactly the same route. So any maps or directions that you get from experienced travellers (best practice organisations) or guides (consultants) will never be exactly right for your organisational journey. Nonetheless, let’s imagine that you are embarking on a journey of intentional change in your organisation, setting off on a journey to greater organisational effectiveness. (This is rather different than simply being swept along, perhaps unwillingly, by the tides of change.) You might choose to be either more planned, or more exploratory and opportunistic in your approach. Your choices may be guided by your assumptions about change ‘management’, from past experience of ‘what works’, and from your personality preferences. No single approach is intrinsically ‘better’ than the others, although some might be a better fit. Yet, whichever approach you take, once you set off into the unknown, you need to be prepared to find your way in ever-changing terrain.   The...

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on Oct 31, 2014 in Blog

Normally at this time of year, I’d be reaching for the winter woollies – cardigans, jumpers, coats and scarves. But not this year. Not yet, anyway. When I went out earlier this week, I instinctively put another layer on and grabbed a scarf to keep out the expected Autumn chill. Yet within 5 minutes, the scarf was off, followed a few minutes later by the cardigan. Unusually there was wall to wall sunshine and, by UK standards, it was like summer! By removing the layers I didn’t need, I was able to adapt to the weather conditions. (Having worked in Chicago, where Fall temperatures can fluctuate wildly, I’d learned the value of layers). Being able to take adaptive action is useful, sometimes imperative, when you’re confronted by unexpected or changing conditions. Faced with unexpectedly good weather, all I could do was to (happily) adapt to the conditions I found. Adaptability is highly prized in many organisations today. Leaders and organisations are encouraged to become more agile and adaptable to changing conditions. Adapt or die, is a common mantra in a working world that seems evermore volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous (VUCA). Adaptability, once learned, can be pretty automatic. I didn’t have to think much about adding or removing extra layers. That’s useful, because there was nothing I could have done to influence the weather conditions that day. But, in organisations, becoming really good at adapting to prevailing conditions is not necessarily the most effective strategy for longer-term success. Especially when adapting becomes the automatic ‘go to’ solution. That’s because a strategy of agility that is overplayed and becomes dominant means that an organisation, team or individual can get stuck on a sub-optimal peak of performance.   From a complexity perspective, this comes from Stuart Kauffman’s idea of Rugged Fitness Landscapes, where adaptation may mean becoming stuck on a sub-optimal peak of fitness.     Responsive action is different. In organisations, what everyone is saying and doing as they interact in their everyday work creates conditions that affect what people feel they can and cannot say and do. We often refer to these conditions as the culture or climate in an organisation or team. Example: The owner of a precision...

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on Aug 25, 2014 in Blog

To my surprise, I’ve realised that the red party balloon under the stairs is now two years old. A bit more actually – it’s 751 days old today. That seems very old for a party balloon. It was blown up for a party during the London 2012 Olympics, and it’s still inflated. This is an unexpected and unintended consequence of a series of small, inconsequential decisions. And that’s often how we get what we get in organisations in terms of patterns of behaviour that we might label as ‘culture’. But once we have a pattern, it has an effect, and it can be hard to change. Here’s why. Take the balloon story. The red balloon is under mystairs by accident, rather than design. But because it IS there, it has an effect. Actually, it probably has several effects. When I open the cupboard and see it, I’m often surprised – I’d forgotten it was there; I’m intrigued – I’m amazed it’s still there; and, oddly, I feel somewhat pleased that it’s still there. It’s probably affected behaviour too, because I haven’t used the green bucket it’s been sat in, and nor, I suspect has anyone else in my household. So, what does this mean for culture change? Your organisation probably has its own metaphorical balloons hidden under the stairs. They may be values shared (e.g. we value expertise), stories told (e.g. we punch above our weight), or ways of doing things that are perpetuated over time (e.g. we talk about action, rather than take action). They may have arisen accidentally; an unintended consequence of a series of small actions taken some while ago, and people’s responses to those actions. You probably don’t even notice the balloons after a while. But, although invisible, they may stimulate a pattern of behaviour, where people just don’t use the green bucket, because there’s a red balloon in it. But after a while no one remembers why there’s a red balloon in it, or whether it’s important to keep. These metaphorical balloons can mean that organisations get stuck repeating the same patterns, without necessarily realising why. For example, ‘we value expertise’ can turn into rigid demarcations of experts which get in the way of...

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on May 15, 2014 in Blog

Although this blog post was borne out of frustration with a major telecoms ‘supplier’ who has consistently failed to supply – don’t get me started – there are important insights about the unintended consequences which can arise from complexity.     So here’s the scenario: We recently contacted a major telecoms company. Can we have broadband please, we asked. ‘You can’t have broadband without a phone line’, we were told. So we said, well OK, we’ll have a phone line and broadband then. And we arranged a start date. This is a very simple scenario – something that must happen every day. So you’d imagine that this very large telecoms company would be able to manage that.   Here’s what happened: We received an acknowledgement confirming everything was in order. This was followed by another message saying sorry they couldn’t supply and would explain why. We waited, no one called. So we called again to confirm our order (this takes some while). Yes, yes, yes, they said, everything is in order. We received a message to confirm our order was being despatched… followed by another which said sorry, they’d contact us to explain why we wouldn’t receive it. No one did. We called again. Someone would call us between 8am and 8pm the following day (yes, really) to explain why it wasn’t going to happen, we were told. No one did. We received our order – hooray! Followed by a message to say we had to return it. So we called yet again and said; you’ve sent us what we wanted, can we keep it? ‘No, you have to return it’. But it’s what we asked for. ‘And you have to send it back to us’. You get the picture: YES, you can have it. NO, you can’t have it. Or, the short version… YES – NO – YES – NO – YES – NO — Arrgh!!!!!!!   Unless there have been some saboteurs at work, no one designed this hugely dysfunctional socio-technical system. The company’s repeated inability to supply a very simple, straightforward order is an unintended consequence. But, almost unbelievably, it turns out that it’s not an isolated example – far from it. [Form an orderly queue,...

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on Mar 4, 2014 in Blog

Not all that long ago, there were 3 places you could go for coffee in my town: a popular independent coffee shop, with somewhat variable service, near the town centre supermarket a chain coffee shop, normally full to gills with mums and toddlers and a café bar (over 21s only) with wifi. In the past year or so, there’s been an explosion of new coffee shops. Alongside the familiar coffee chains and supermarket coffee shops that have moved in, there are a whole host of new independents. We’ve got coffee/delis, coffee ‘and something to go with it’ cafés, and a pop-up coffee shop, which has now popped along to the pub up the road. So, what’s going on here? Is this sudden surge of coffee shops catering for a hopelessly caffeine-addicted local population? Possibly. But, if so, it’s not unique. My (un)scientific research on this topic – chatting to people I know – has revealed that many other small towns are also experiencing a flood of new coffee shops. Changing communities Perhaps what we’re seeing here is an indicator of socio-economic system change. Towns like mine are changing from retail hubs into social hubs, so people go there to meet/eat/drink. Hence there are more food and drink outlets. And, since coffee is a high-margin, high-consumption product with a decent shelf life – we shouldn’t be surprised at the proliferation of coffee shops in that mix. Coffee shops offer us a chance to connect with people. But, that normally means connecting with people you already know. So, while connecting over coffee may energise existing connections, it may not do as much as we’d like to create new communities. Creating new communities Network theory gives us some language to explain what’s going on in a coffee shop and how we might create new, thriving communities. [ALERT: If ‘theory’ isn’t for you, and you want to go straight to the practical bit, then just scroll down – and find out how Randomised Coffee Trials are helping create communities in big organisations] In a coffee shop, we see lots of small groups (2, 3, 4 people) chatting to friends around a table. But we rarely see much interaction between people on different tables....

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