The Value of Observation Through the Lens of Complexity Theory
Issue 125, September 7, 2023
One of anyone’s life goals is to be a good observer. It’s fruitful to watch how things unfold around us as we try to make sense of the patterns and connections. Almost everything around us is connected, has interdependence, and influences all the parts that comprise the whole of a system. And that includes the systems of society and, of course, our organizations.
In that spirit, we’ve been observing how societies seem to be undergoing stress tests that challenge their very foundations. Presidential candidates are assassinated. Military chiefs usurp a government. Prime ministers are replaced in a series of revolving doors. And in this country, it appears that we have at least two different interpretations of our constitution.
What Is an Observer to Do?
We’ve been investigating how a successful society is defined and organized and that led us to the natural world, and not surprisingly to ants. They look so industrious and purposeful. They seem to be marching to the beat of a leader who instills a common mission. But it turns out that ant colonies are self-organizing. Professor of pathology at the NYU Grossman School of Medicine, Neil Theise, writes that “The emergent phenomena of ant colonies do not arise because some leader in the colony is planning things. While emergence often looks planned from the top down, it is not. A simple ant line provides a good example. Ants take food from wherever they find it and bring it back to the colony. Back and forth the ants go, so efficient and well-ordered it seems as though someone must certainly have set it all up. But no one did. The queen ant doesn’t perform an administrative function; she does not monitor the status of the colony as a whole. She serves only a reproductive function. There is no single ant or group of ants at the top planning the food line or any other aspect of the colony. The organization arises only from the local interactions between each ant and any other ant it encounters.”
That got us thinking: How exactly does this work? Are there learnings by observing other non-human societies? And can we realize that many different models can be successful? Or are we so ingrained in our own beliefs of success and what we think works that we fail to understand there are some models that work more effectively than the ones we have in place? We wrote more on the topic, focusing on observational research of seals (no kidding!) demonstrating a different way to form systems in our book The Truth About Transformation.
Historically, human societies across time have installed leaders, whether they be a king, emperor, chief, dictator, president and in today’s organizational terms, Chief Executive Officer (CEO). We follow (or acquiesce to) someone charismatic, exudes power and seems to know something no one else does. In fact, many of us follow that leader almost blindly, which rolls up into societal and organizational structures dubbed “command and control.”
Sure, someone always needs to be in the lead, bearing responsibility so others don’t have to. The individuals who find themselves elevated to commander and controller often find out the hard way that with power comes enormous responsibility. And that power can be taken away in a nanosecond by death, being overthrown, losing an election — or in terms of an organization, by a board of directors or groups of shareholders. Consider this: Today the average tenure of a CEO in private companies is a handful of years. Why? Is our model broken? Ineffective? Have we settled for an organizational model that “is what it is” and do not or refuse to use our observational skills to make it more effective?
Our musings about alternative models reflecting on ants and nature’s systems lead us to our thesis of the week: complexity theory as it affects an organization and how it can offer a structure and opportunity for building a functional organization. Put simply, complexity theory is the study of complex and chaotic systems and how order, pattern, and structure can arise from them. The theory represents that processes having a large number of seemingly independent agents can spontaneously order themselves into a coherent system. Skeptical? Use your own observational skills and look to systems across nature, like migrating geese, and of course, the ants.
Dr. Neil Theise writes in his book, Notes on Complexity: A Scientific Theory of Connection, Consciousness and Being, “A distinguishing feature of life’s complexity is that, in every single instance, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Even if one knows the characteristics and behaviors of all the individual elements of a living system (a cell, a body, an ecosystem), one cannot predict the extraordinary properties that emerge from their interactions.”
Interactions are the impacts, dependencies, and influences that result from actions and decisions. They can be strategic, tactical, and yes even emotional. We often struggle –whether purposely or because we are far too consumed in the day-to-day — to step back and use our observational and critical thinking skills to see the patterns emerge around us. We are challenged to see how seemingly unconnected dots actually connect even in the throes of real or perceived chaos.
We see this play out all the time in real life. But what we often see is typically retrospective. We tend to see things clearly in the rearview mirror in contrast to anticipating the potential outcomes or impacts of our decisions and actions.
Single-source leadership ideas, decisions, strategies, and directions that form a plan can be morphed into a better plan through consensus of the workers who activate the plan. And even more to the point, as next gens rise through the management ranks of our organizations, they are demanding that “the power of the whole” becomes the operating principle. A command-and-control leadership model is becoming dysfunctional and antiquated. Collaboration and cooperation are expected, and each member of an organization’s colony has a voice. When viewed at a macro level, next gens are the practical manifestation of complexity theory.
So, let’s continue to explore Theise’s views: “Complexity theory can foster an invaluable flexibility of perspectives and awaken us to our true, deep intimacy with the larger whole, so that we might return to what we once had: our birthright of being one with all.”
Ok, that may be a bit philosophical, so let’s bring forward a more practical and relatable definition. Tanya Sammut-Bonnici economics professor at the University of Malta describes complexity theory as how systems, such as the economy and global corporations, grow, adapt, and evolve. She says that the relationships among members of these systems demonstrate collective behavior and interact with the environment.
And some good news in response to those who think robots are going to take over human beings, Theise explains, “Neither we nor our universe is machinelike. A machine doesn’t have the option to change its behavior if its environment changes or becomes overwhelming. Complex systems, including human bodies and human societies, can change their behaviors in the face of the unpredictable. That creativity is the essence of complexity.”
The theory of complexity as it relates to organizations is based on research in the natural sciences (e.g., ant colonies) that focus on uncertainty and a non-linear worldview. Although we face a disruptive marketplace and economic uncertainty, there are self-organizing principles that support an evolutionary approach to business survival. Like natural selection, successful organizations evolve to adapt to new market conditions in a dynamic network of adaptive strategies and operations. Organizations that are flexible, creative, agile, and innovative are more likely to survive market turbulence. Decentralized, non-hierarchical networks are more likely to thrive. What is the fundamental tenet for success? A culture of trust that welcomes ideas that challenge the status quo.
The notion that “spontaneous self-organization” can take place in a system without anyone being in charge of planning the organization is no doubt shocking to many. The fact that there is no master controller and behavior is generated by the competition and cooperation among workers is even more anxiety-provoking. But an organizational system like nature can thrive when it is adaptive. The process is iterative and complex adaptive organizational systems are always rearranging their strategies and processes as they gain experience. For example, an adaptive organization will promote employees who do well, and if enlightened, will reshuffle its managers and organizational chart. It’s the same as countries making trade agreements or realigning themselves into whole new alliances. Collaboration even with competitors is the guiding principle of a forward-looking organizational strategy.
Complexity Theory in Practice
It’s common sense: No leader can match the marketing intelligence and solutions of workers who are constantly communicating on the frontline. TM Hout wrote in The Harvard Business Review claiming that “management as we have known it is too cumbersome for today’s fast, unpredictable pace. A new kind of company wins now. The best management models don’t adapt to the new economy; they emerge from it. It’s no longer the survival of the fittest; it’s the arrival of the fittest.”
Self-organization doesn’t mean there is no overarching strategy. The strategy, however, is fluid, not linear. It evolves based on real-time feedback and experience. The trap of leading with an established corporate strategy is that the organization typically defines itself through legacy conditions and solutions that are irrelevant to continuously evolving market conditions. The startup mentality is to try something to see if it works. If it doesn’t, fail fast. According to Alan Kay, former CEO of Disney, “Most businesses do not move so fast that foresight, commitment, preemption, deterrence, and other traditional elements of strategy have lost their ability to build value. The best way to predict the future is to invent it.”
Sherry Turkle, professor of sociology of science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), believes that technology has helped illustrate complexity theory. She cites the concept of “the sum of the parts is greater than the whole,” in that knowing all “the parts of a computer system can’t give anyone the ability to foresee all the complexity that can arise as all of those parts interact.”
Ron Schultz, co-author of Open Boundaries, explains that complexity theory “is about how our ideas shape our behaviors. If our ideas about the world in which we operate are machine-like and mechanical, our behaviors will be very different than if our ideas are based on that of complex adaptive systems, which are more evolutionary and organic.”
To summarize, replacing linear and hierarchical approaches to corporate decision-making with complexity theory offers organizations a way to thrive on the ambiguity and unpredictability that define modern business. To thrive, organizations (and society) must be open to releasing what has always been done based on ingrained reasons, decisions, models, and interpretations.
The path forward is to operate with adaptive models and systems. Change is constant and change can be chaotic. Organizational complexity is predicated on the concept that no one person can know everything or be an expert in everything. The power of the whole is the foundation of complexity. When we leverage our collective observational skills, we can unleash our inherent creativity and realize different ways to do things. Complexity theory is a way to view our organizations as organic systems and to retrain ourselves to let go of our rigidly rooted responses.
By the way, The Truth About Transformation was selected by Amazon for its Prime Reading Program. It’s now available as part of Amazon’s Prime membership through November 30, 2023. Get your copy today!
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