Tag Archives: emergence

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. Continue reading


On the means and ends of management

One topic of discussion in the international aid domain is the extent to which current management practice, the management of development, works against the expressed aims of international development organisations. Put simply, if the aim of international aid organisations, INGOs, is to help others to help themselves in ways that, according to the Nobel prize-winning economist Amartya Sen, ‘they have reason to value’, then what place do ways of working have which are predicated on control, and some would argue, coercion? In the thicket of visions, strategies, grids, frameworks, and targets which INGOs set themselves, to what degree are the voices of the disenfranchised audible? Or are they rather, drowned out by the aspirations of INGOs which in appearance and actions seem more closely to resemble private sector corporations? Have means become disconnected from ends?

In this and a series of subsequent posts I will be arguing that means and ends are inseparable: they are constitutive of each other. If the means of INGOs appear to be contradicting the ends they espouse publicly, then this is because other ends have come to dominate. Although this discussion is specifically about INGOs it may have relevance by analogy to other discussions about the means and ends of management in, say, the public sector, for example the management of schools and hospitals, or the management of companies which aspire to being innovative or creative. To what degree is the way they are managed consistent with what they want to achieve? Continue reading

The science of uncertainty III

In the last two posts I have been exploring the work of two scholars who use computer models to simulate complex social reality. I have been making the argument that both would consider themselves to be academics writing in a natural science tradtion, although their interest is in non-linear rather than linear phenomena. Both Allen and Hedström acknowledge the shortcomings of developing computer models as a way of having something to say about human experience. They are precise and generalisable, but they are at the same time abstract and built on some strong assumptions. Neither would claim that a human would ever behave like a programmed agent in a computer model. Nonetheless, I want to argue that some of their observations about uncertainty, the importance of time, paradox, interpretation and the mutually-adaptive behaviour of humans can also be found in the work of the very theoretical sociologist, Pierre Bourdieu, that Hedström in particular has reserved such criticism. Continue reading

The science of uncertainty II

In the last post we introduced the work of Peter Allen, who models complex phenomena using non-linear computer programmes. These models do not assume that each of the interacting agents is the same, nor do they assume that the interactions happen at an average rate. The parameters set for the model do not oblige it to move towards equilibrium. With these programmed assumptions Allen describes the way in which interacting agents adapt to and learn from each other, and how novelty arises from deviant and eccentric behaviour. Allen concludes that ‘strategy’, which we might take to  mean a description of what all the agents are doing, develops imperfectly and can only be made sense of retrospectively.

In this post we will explore the ideas behind agent-based modelling further as a way of pointing out some of the similarities between scholars operating within different disciplines but coming to some similar conclusions about uncertainty and complexity. Continue reading

Are we all complexity theorists now?

It has become quite commonplace to adduce the complexity sciences in articles and talks about organisational change, although from the way the ideas are set out it is often difficult to know how the particular  ‘complexity perspective’ is adding anything to our current ways of understanding management and change. It can taste like the usual meat and two veg, but perhaps with a bit of mustard on the side of the plate.

So, for example, one frequently comes across the idea that we should ’embrace complexity’ or ‘allow emergence to happen’, or even ‘unleash complexity’ in the organisation. There are a number of two by two grids and frameworks which circulate which purport to help managers identify whether the situation they find themselves in is complex, or merely just complicated. If the former then certain tools and strategies should be used, and if the latter then it requires a different set of tools.

Emergence is often described as a good thing, and in contrast too much control a bad thing. However,  ‘just allowing things to emerge’  can also be a bad thing, so  a manager needs to achieve ‘the right balance’  between allowing emergence to happen, but not too much. Emergence is another tool in the toolbox for a manager to wield when appropriate.

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Complexity and development management

In an article coming out next month (Vol 30, 2010)  in the Journal of Public  Administration and Development I responded  to an invitation to write about the future of development management from a complexity perspective. This involved forming a view as to whether there is such a thing as development management, as well as dealing with ideas about how the future arises from the present. On what basis might one predict a future for anything, and what would these predictions say about our theories of causality?

The article argues that development management borrows heavily from management ideas that prevail in other sectors, particularly but not exclusively, New Public Management. In other words, many of the concepts, assumptions, grids, frameworks and instruments of management that get taken up widely in the public sector, and in the private sector, are also widely used in development organisations. One is just as likely to find managers in development organisations talking about their ‘niche’ and their ‘brand’, undertaking strategic planning, setting ‘stretch targets’, and worrying about effectiveness and efficiency as in any other sector. There are obvious differences, but at the same time managers in development organisations are working with very similar theories, implicit or explicit, to those adopted by managers in all kinds of other organisations. Is this such a surprise if they have management qualifications from the same business schools?

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Narrative, creativity and emergence

In a lecture given to students on Columbia University’s creative writing programme the novelist Zadie Smith responded to an invitation to speak about her craft. In doing so she gives a very good description of the ways in which one might pay attention to micro-interactions from which the global pattern emerges. She describes a complex, adaptive relationship with the act of writing.

She draws a distinction between macro planners and micro managers,  counting herself amongst the latter (and it is interesting to note how the language of managerialism has permeated even novelists’ language). Macro planners organise everything in advance: the material, the plot, the structure, and may even write their novel from the middle. It is this tight structure that they use as their enabling constraint, which gives them freedom on the one hand, but hems them in on the other. As one choice forces another, sometimes they are impelled to change the choices they have made, moving a locale from London to Berlin, for example. Continue reading