Learning and change in a complex world

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 Sep 19, 2014 in Blog

  The morning after the Scottish referendum on independence and there seems to be a mad dash for constitutional change in the UK. That change has been called for is not in question. Some want greater self-determination. Some want a new system for social justice. Some want to grab greater personal and political power. Some want healing and unity. That change is underway is not in question. The seeds of change have already been sown in the multitude of public and private debates and deliberations around Scottish independence. Yes or No – simply asking the question about independence began the process of change. And, as many OD people well-know, the questions we ask often focus change in a particular direction. That change in one place affects another is not in question. The question of change for Scotland acts like a ripple on a pond, affecting the wider system of the UK (and beyond) and the people within it. The question of constitutional change in Scotland has already raised the possibility of change for England and prompted people to ask questions about greater powers for cities and regions. From a complex social systems perspective, you cannot change the constitution in one part of a system without affecting other interrelated parts. So, because Scotland is part of a complex social, economic and political system, change is not just under way for Scotland, it is inevitably under way for the wider system. What will actually change IS in question. The trouble with change in complex social systems is that it is impossible to know in advance how a system will actually change. And it is impossible to know in advance what unintended consequences may emerge in the short and the long term. However, we do know that unintended consequences are highly likely. That’s due to the sheer number of people involved, and their complex patterns of communicative interaction with one another. And we do know that constitutional change will enable and constrain some of those patterns of interaction, although we do not know what will emerge from changing the rules of engagement. So, from a complex social systems perspective, some really important questions are: How can we make space to learn what...

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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 Jul 17, 2014 in Blog

  An edited version of this article was originally published in theHRDIRECTOR in June 2014 The buzz is about Big Data, but does that mean ‘Small Data’ is brushed under the carpet? Big Data is a fashionable phrase describing the vast amounts of digital information now available – from stratospheric growth in online traffic and reductions in storage costs – and the clever analytics used to find patterns in that data. But, with Big Data grabbing so many headlines, what is ‘small data’ and why is it so important? Far from being trivial, small data on a human scale can herald early warning signs of change in organisations. That’s why it is so important for HR Directors and other business leaders to ensure it is not simply brushed under the carpet. ‘Small data’ refers to the kind of information that we can all pick up, every day, in the normal course of our work. It might take the form of an unexpected comment which suddenly galvanises people into action; a growing disconnect between two groups; a new story that starts circulating virally; or a dip in energy within a team. As the name suggests, small data may be indistinct, so it can be tricky to define and articulate, even when we sense it. What makes it still harder to grasp is that small data is distributed around organisations. We each hold a piece of the puzzle, yet no-one can stand aside from the constant creation and flow of data in organisations to see the whole picture. Nevertheless, small data is human scale data, often qualitative, that we can all notice if we know what to look for. Small data, on a human scale, can herald early warning signs of change in organisations.  And small data can be powerful in challenging what we think we know. You only need to notice one black swan in order to prove that swans can be black. Even more importantly, it is the best data we have about how an organisation is changing, until after the fact. The power of small data is that it can give us advance warning of potential problems or completely new opportunities. It can signal important twists and turns...

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on Jun 25, 2014 in Blog

This is an important question for governments, businesses, organisations and individuals. Because when we make decisions today, we are often making bets on an unknown future e.g. about retirement or energy needs and provision. Some are sceptical, rightly so, about the limitations of prediction in a complex and uncertain world. [See new blog posts from Ralph Stacey and Chris Rogers]. Yet we often need to act amid uncertainty: be that in planning large infrastructure projects; developing health and social care policies; or making choices about our own retirement provision. So, how can we address the question: what does the future hold?   Mystics, statistics and learning There are statistical models and mystical models. Although polar opposites in their reliance on data, both statistical and mystical models assume that they can make predictions about the future with some significant degree of certainty. Learning models, on the other hand, offer ways of working with uncertainty. Statistical models assume the world is predictable, the future knowable, that ‘tomorrow’ will be largely like ‘today’ in all important aspects. They assume regularity and ignore uncertainty. They downplay the likelihood of unknowns and extreme events, although extreme events are more common in nature than you might expect (see long tails and power laws). They also downplay free-will, assuming that people will largely respond in ways that are similar to how they’ve responded in the past. And they assume that small differences in those responses won’t add up to anything much, even though there’s increasing understanding of butterfly effects (remember Gerald Ratner’s ill-advised comment?), ‘viral’ change and social movements. If data is king, then Big Data is emperor. Why do we like statistical models in business? Because they give the illusion of certainty and can reduce the anxiety of leadership and decision-making in an inherently uncertain world. Mystical models assume the world is preordained, that the future can be intuitively seen now, by a select few with special gifts or skills e.g. successful business leaders, tech entrepreneurs, or fortune tellers. In assuming an unfolding future, mystical models downplay human agency and free-will; the ability of human beings to act and react in ways that are imaginative, rebellious, constructive and destructive. Hindsight about successful predictions or interventions...

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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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