The Rise of Emergent Organizations
Beth Comstock
54431

Beth,

It was quite a long time ago, but I had the immense fortune to work with you, Beth Comstock, and Linda Boff when I was with Undercurrent. Now, I run my own Organizational Design firm.

I’m ecstatic that you’ve turned your considerable mind and celebrity to the topic of complex adaptive systems.

I firmly believe that the test of the 21st century will be our ability to grasp and cope with increasingly complex systems (while rejecting the siren song of simplistic slogans). My father lost his business in 2008 and I became obsessed then with understanding how an investment bubble in a single economic sector could ripple throughout a global economy.

It lead me to speak with CAS scientists all over the globe. I am by no means an expert, but I am an obsessive by birth, and a nerd by choice. I’ve even given a TEDx talk on the topic of complex systems.

For the last 8 years, I’ve been trying to apply the lessons of CAS to my work, which has encompassed both cultures in the world and cultures in organizations. Here’s what I’ve learned:

  1. Humans are irreducible. For every technological leap, we apply the metaphor of the day to describe human beings. But no, humans do not behave like ants or white blood cells. Ants don’t wake up, have a fight with their husband, and spend the rest of the day angry. Humans have layers of complex adaptive systems nested within them, so when we compare them to simpler living systems, we do their beauty injustice and we oversimplify the process of navigating control and autonomy.
  2. Empowerment, self-management, and the like demand rigorous re-training. My firm, NOBL, has helped dozens of organizations steer ever toward self organization and self management, but the workforce that exists in the world today too often lacks both the ability to learn quickly, and the ingrained permission to try and fail. Organizations that have rushed headlong into self organization have seen dramatic negative consequences because they first didn’t focus on retraining their people and their instincts. Your employees need both lessons in self-management and a wider sense of how your business works, before you can truly empower them without causing material harm to the business.
  3. This revolution has to come first from the practitioners. Agile was a methodology that grew from those running and working in factories. Too much of the literature and models for changing how we work has come directly from consultants (myself included). We need people who are closest to the grindstone to be active sensors to the trials and tribulations of this evolutionary leap in thinking.
  4. Strategy must change. Complex adaptive systems teach us that the only norm is perpetual novelty. Traditional strategic planning was predicated on being able to somewhat successfully plot the future. As you wrote, we should be planning for multiple versions of the future, some that will actually co-exist at the same time (Today I watched 3 people using pay-phones in the NY subway). Our own practice is obsessed with IF->THEN statements for prediction and EVEN-OVER statements for the unpredictable. One of my favorite CAS scientists, whose name belies me at the moment, said we must redefine strategy not as a means of control, but as a means of understanding control.
  5. Automation is a force for enhancement, not replacement. ATMs actually encouraged MORE branches to be opened and allowed the humans working at those branches to focus on higher-order tasks which lead to both better customer service and more opportunities for increased revenue. We need to stop treating automation as a bogeyman.
  6. Borders will become less clear. When we talk in systems, we start to lose the ability to isolate cause and effect within specific domains and increasingly have to broaden our scope of dialogue and understanding. This will be incredibly challenging for organizations which thrive in concrete job descriptions and domains of responsibility. We have to both allow talent to be transient within organizations while also establishing psychological safety for questioning and testing.
  7. The transition will be destructive. Many organizations which have done away with performance reviews have actually suffered because of it. We must be careful to manage this transition well, to understand that human beings crave certainty (even as the world belies it), and that organizations are nothing but the commercialization of human interactions. Messy human interactions.

Beth, I know I’m just an internet commenter, but I do hope someday we can exchange notes on this new era. I wish you nothing but luck (which in an emergent world is actually quite valuable) and hope for the best for GE.

If you’re up for a quick chat, my email is bud.caddell@nobl.io.

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