Are we all complexity theorists now? Part II

I began to argue in the last but one post that the complexity sciences are adduced by a wide variety of scholars and commentators who are writing or talking about organisational change, and that this phenomenon may be indicative of the pressure that more linear ways of understanding change are under. Many people realise instinctively, and from their own experience, that  the taken for granted ways of thinking about change, input-process-output, are inadequate for describing what actually takes place when they are caught up in organisational life. However, I also went on to argue that there is still a very strong tendency to try and instrumentalise the complexity sciences. If you like, these commentators are having their cake and eating it at the same time: on the one hand they say that organisations are very complex places, on the other hand they argue that complexity can still somehow be harnessed by some managerial approach or other.  This manifests itself in a variety of different forms, from those people who claim that they can help your organisation model the complexity you are experiencing, perhaps with a computer model or a systems diagram, through to those who claim they have a unique method, which  you can buy off them or be trained in, which will help you manage the complexity in your organisation. In a blog I came across the other day the author was arguing that managers can ‘manage the evolutionary possibilities of the present’  in their organisations.

Previously I have argued that during the last two decades or so strong ideological claims have been made for the unique abilities of managers both to identify, shape and manage change. A cursory glance at the recruitment pages of the daily newspapers will produce a number of different advertisements where managers are sought who can  ‘drive change’ in an organisation.  Clearly there is no job too big for the claims of management as a discipline:   it can manage change, complexity and evolution.The different, and I would argue, more radical understanding of insights from the complexity sciences, which I have been working out on this blog with others drawing on the theory of complex responsive processes as developed by Stacey et al, is that there is no managing complexity. There is no place to stand from which you can harness, manipulate, embrace or otherwise control complex responsive processes of relating between oneself and other human beings. This clearly presents a profound threat to the narrative of managerialism.

This may help explain why it is that commentators cling to systems theory: the  complexity sciences are sometimes taken up as ‘complex systems’. A systems approach implies a systems designer, which is usually taken to be the manager. For example, complex adaptive systems are computer-based models which demonstrate self-organisation and emergence as a result of small differences arising between interacting agents. Although the model is constrained by the algorithmic parameters set in advance by the programmers, and algorithms themselves have an if-then causality, the model nonetheless exhibits the ability to evolve arising from the micro-diversity of the interacting agents. It is both the non-average nature of the interactions and the different types of agents that shape novel patterns emerging in the system. Thinking about complex adaptive systems as analogy is very helpful if one were looking for explanations as to how global patterns arise from local interaction, but constrain that local interaction at the same time. The moment that we forget that this is an analogy and think of organisations as if they actually were complex adaptive systems, we then presume a systems designer, someone who can set the rules and decide the patterning of interaction, or perhaps even build you a model of it. Very often when commentators take up insights from the complexity sciences they do not adequately account for the way they are taking them up, and quickly slip into a paradigm of control. To do otherwise, some would claim, is to be ‘anti-management’.

But does this then imply that managers have nothing to do, and are merely buffeted by the winds of complexity along with everyone else? It is quite a common initial reaction amongst groups of managers wrestling with these ideas to assume that if they are not in control, then they must simply be helpless. This is partly testament to the prominence of the assumption in dominant ideas in management theory that management is about being in control. Others, over time find radical insights from the complexity sciences liberating. It helps explain why, despite their best intentions and best efforts things did not turn out as they expected. They were not able to design the perfect system, but they were participating in the complex interplay of intentions of which no one was in control. It enabled them to pay closer attention to their own role in what was happening, and how they were co-creating the situation they found themselves in with others.

So, taking up a radical standpoint on complexity theory may not be disempowering, but it would certainly refocus managers’ attention. Perhaps they would spend much less time on models, strategies and projections into an often idealised future, but would concentrate rather on the way things are emerging in the living present, with no presumption that they can manage it.

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One thought on “Are we all complexity theorists now? Part II

  1. Pingback: Are we all complexity theorists now? Part II « Learning Change

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