Prepare for rapture – complexity and the dawning of a New Age

A friend alerted me to a website for a consultancy which claims to be offering new insights on management for a new world of work. Apologies for what sounds like, and no doubt is, a caricatured paraphrase of what I found, but here is what I think the site is saying:

We live in a networked world. There’s a lot of change. There is going to be more change and top down command and control is now an old paradigm of management. Some of this change is good, some of it isn’t, but mostly it’s good. But what we need to do is be more aware of the changes and prepare to design more change of the kind that we want. This will mean spreading power around a bit more and being alert to complexity. Leaders need to have visions and set targets to achieve them, then they coach their followers. They will need to be deeply aware and mindful. Followers need to work out how to be empowered and of service. They too will need to be deeply aware and mindful. If we all trust each other a bit more and deal better with complexity we can have more meaningful conversations. Then we’ll get the future that we want. In a more networked world we need: Knowledge. Trust. Credibility.  A focus on results.

This way of thinking is not just confined to people selling consultancy services, but extends to academia as well. In more scholarly form there is a paper from 2007 by Mary Uhl-Bien, Russ Marion, and Bill McKelvey[1], three eminent scholars who bring in the complexity sciences extensively in their work. The paper argues that top-down bureaucratic forms of management were effective for the industrial age but a new form of leadership is needed for the knowledge age. This requires the development of a new framework for leadership, which the authors term Complexity Leadership Theory (CLT). They then draw on Comples Adaptive Systems (CAS) theory to argue that organizations are CAS which have a unique and socially constructed ‘persona’. What is needed is a theory of leadership, rather than merely focusing on leaders, which encourages adaptive and emergent outcomes. The required leadership framework needs to distinguish between administrative leadership that serves to coordinate organizational activity, and adaptive leadership to refer to the leadership that occurs in emergent, informal adaptive dynamics throughout the organization. Finally, the authors claim that the framework needs to address adaptive challenges rather than technical problems, since the former and not amenable to authoritative fiat and involve managers trying to find their way out of problems they may not have encountered before. They adapt Ashby’s (1960) law of requisite variety to argue for a law of requisite complexity, i.e. that the degree of complexity inside an organization needs to match the degree of complexity outside the organization. So complex problems demand complex responses and it is the role of the leadership framework to:

…(seek) to foster CAS dynamics while at the same time enabling control structures appropriate for coordinating formal organizations and producing outcomes appropriate to the vision and mission of the system. It seeks to integrate complexity dynamics and bureaucracy, enabling and coordinating, exploration and exploitation, CAS and hierarchy, and informal emergence and top-down control.

Readers of this blog will probably be aware that one of the assumptions I would take issue with in this article is that it is helpful to think of organisation as CAS, or even that they are systems at all. Present, too, are the usual dualisms: that there is a clear distinction between leadership and management, that there is a difference between administrative and adaptive leadership for contingent conditions, and that there are bureaucratic structures and emergent processes. Nor would I consider emergence to be a special category of human activity which is the opposite of something planned or structured. Instead I would say that whatever emerges, emerges because of the activity of feeling human bodies acting locally, whether they are planning or undertaking some other kind of activity. Human beings are constantly responding and adapting to each other all the time. As with the consultancy site, so here in this article, there is an assumption that emergent processes are inevitably creative and innovative: but of course they may also be destructive and regressive. Only time will tell and the judgement depends on who is judging.

There appears to me to be something of a bitter contrast on this focus on what can only be described as Millennial thinking, where we are invited to prepare ourselves for the coming of a New Age of Enlightenment ushered in by new technology and widespread acceptance that we have to be nicer to each other, with the daily experience of many workers in the public sector in the UK for example. So in schools, hospitals, the NHS, Higher Education establishments, many INGOs and voluntary sector organsiations workers are increasingly scrutinised, set targets, admonished for not working harder, for not adding enough ‘value’. Organisations, even ones which are run along lines of use value as opposed to exchange value (to borrow from Marx) are now predicated on bottom line calculations using proxy metrics. In these organisations top down control is getting worse, not better.

Of course I accept that there are many, many organisations which are not run like this and where it is still possible to have humane working environments. Indeed, I was invited to work in one relatively recently, an engineering company, where workers and managers seemed to me to be struggling purposefully to organise themselves better and to make sense of what their difficulties were. But it is hard to reach the conclusion more generally that we are at the Dawning of the Age of Aquarius.

How might we explain the discrepancy and the persistence of this kind of utopian thinking despite the reality for many workers in many organisations? One explanation would be the deep vein of religious yearning that management literature has always tapped into with its language of visions, transformation, obedience (leadership/followership), and transcendent wholes. When organisational worlds have been flattened and emiserated,  an environment where people treat each other with respect, listen to each other and trust one another does sound especially appealing.

The second explanation has similar utopian/Christian roots in Henri Saint-Simon but passes through the positivism of Auguste Comte, that human knowledge develops through higher and stages (in Comte’s case he argued that knowledge has passed through a theological, metaphysical then a positive (scientific) stage). So the idea of a higher form of human interconnection, which bypasses the messiness of power and politics, rivalry and jealousy, competitiveness, and in the case of BHS in the UK, corporate looting, has an intrinsic appeal.

So although both the consultancy website and the academic article quoted above seem to offer something new and different, one could argue that they offer something very old and recognisable: a yearning for utopia and saintly ways of being with each other based on respect, tolerance and deep listening.

Wouldn’t that be great.


[1] Uhl-Bien, M., Marion. R. and McKelvey, B (2007) Complexity Leadership Theory: Shifting leadership from the industrial age to the knowledge era, Leadership Institute Faculty Publications, Nebraska University Digital Commons, 1/4/2007.



2 thoughts on “Prepare for rapture – complexity and the dawning of a New Age

  1. Tony Nicholls (@TheTonyNicholls)

    This utopian delusion in part leads to the mass anxiety I refer to. I see the majority of people working in our organisations struggling with being labeled as “not good enough”. Competency frameworks are created with definitions for what “not good”, “expected” and “role model” looks like. Resulting performance appraisal distribution curves are then essentially saying “Only 5% can ever be role model, so by definition the rest of you are not good enough. You are flawed.” Flawed in this context has a negative meaning. This utopian perspective ignores the reality of the messy, politically-charged world that is human existence and human organising. We are all flawed, but for the vast majority this has a positive meaning. This is, in fact, how stuff gets done, most of it relatively successfully, in the real world.

  2. Chris Rodgers

    Or wouldn’t that grate!

    Sadly, these “… and they all lived happily ever after” descriptions of a supposedly ‘complexity-aware’ view of organisational dynamics are all too common.


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