Complex adaptive systems govern our lives

How do we build new systems to create the future we want and change the systems that are taking us towards a future we fear?

By John Hagel and Gemma Mortensen

The Fourth Industrial Revolution presents an interesting paradox: the technologies it is unleashing contribute enormously to possible solutions to the critical threats faced by humankind and the planet as well as providing expanding opportunities for inclusive growth. At the same time, these technologies are also increasing performance pressure and, unchecked, they could also pose existential threats. Our institutions and systems are not currently equipped to deal with this growing pressure as well as to effectively steward the immense power of exponential technologies towards the collective benefit of the extraordinary ecosystem of planet earth and the life it sustains.

In the coming years we will need to rethink and evolve institutions and systems that have underpinned our political, economic and societal life in the 20th century but will not serve us well in the 21st. This process of transformation will require a very different kind of leadership to guide it.

We’ve just recently completed a two-year effort leading a Global Future Council on Platforms and Systems for the World Economic Forum focused on the need for new forms of systems leadership and platforms to help drive global change. This post seeks to briefly summarize the findings of a much longer white paper published at the end of this effort. We are very grateful to the members of our Council for their contribution to this perspective. We view this as just a beginning and are looking forward to further evolving and refining this perspective in conversation with others.

New forms of systems leadership

Paradigmatic change is needed. The question is what form of collaboration and leadership makes this transition possible? Unlike old models — which relied on top-down, hierarchical command and control — new approaches will consciously design and create new systems for collaboration that articulate and offer alternative forms of engagement and participation.

Among the common features of these approaches are:

· Crafting and communicating a powerful shared vision of the future and framing powerful questions that focus participants on engaging with and building these new approaches

· Defining the values that will provide the guardrails within which both individual and joint initiatives have autonomy but are also coherent

· Identifying and targeting the leverage points within systems where initiatives can have the most impact with limited resources

· Acknowledging the obstacles and barriers along the way so that participants understand the level of commitment and action that will be required to see change happen

These efforts require a community of participants. To initiate and form such a community of collaborators, it is necessary to:

· Conceive of the community as an intentional system, formed to enable change, and identify the participants needed to bring that system dynamically to life

· Understanding the motivations of the participants

· Encouraging and supporting participants to take initiatives locally without intensive supervision

· Encouraging the formation of local groups of 5–15 people who develop deep trust-based relationships with each other as they seek to achieve impact through local initiatives — we describe this as a “cellular structure”

· Seeking and celebrating early wins across the network to increase the motivation of participants to invest even more effort to drive change

· Connecting the small local groups into a broader network that can leverage resources, support and learning in order to scale impact

Since systems leaders will seek to drive fundamental change in existing institutions and systems, they will be treading on new ground and they will need to help participants learn faster together. This will be learning in the form of creating new knowledge through action, rather than just sharing existing knowledge. Systems leaders can do this by:

· Identifying and systematically tracking the metrics that matter

· Providing feedback loops for all participants so that they can get rich and real-time views of their progress

· Encouraging reflection among participants so they can assess their progress and develop a better sense of the approaches that work

· Creating and holding a space for peer to peer mentoring and emotional support

· Creating more diversity among participants and cultivating productive friction. There is persuasive evidence that a more diverse group of participants will produce more creative approaches and solutions, but that creativity might be enhanced if the leaders promote a culture of productive friction. In that culture, participants are encouraged to challenge each other to come up with better and better approaches, but to challenge each other with respect, where all are driven by a shared commitment to achieving greater impact.

The role of platforms

Platforms can play a significant role in scaling the impact of systems leadership. Unfortunately, too many people narrowly view platforms from a technology perspective. In fact, platforms ultimately are about governance values and protocols that can facilitate interaction among the participants on a platform. While technology can be a powerful enabler, the key is to remain focused on the underlying social DNA of the platform and how to build accountability around it.

While most platforms today are aggregation platforms that support short-term transactions (e.g., Uber) or social platforms that help participants to build social relationships (e.g., Facebook), there are other forms of platforms that can be particularly powerful in supporting the efforts of systems leaders. These platforms combine a focus on mobilization and learning — they’re explicitly designed to support participants to achieve a shared outcome and to help the participants accelerate their effectiveness through feedback loops and other learning mechanisms.

In deploying these kinds of platforms, systems leaders focus on enhancing the following design elements:

· Providing shared virtual workspaces that help the small groups of participants (“cells”) to collaborate in developing the materials they will need to coordinate and further their initiatives

· Preserving balance between maintaining the focus of the overall movement and encouraging local initiative

· Building trust among participants — mechanisms like reputation systems enhance visibility

· Staging challenges so that participants’ early efforts yield quick and tangible impact and then gradually increasing the level of challenge to motivate participants to go further

· Providing an organized forum for questions and answers so that participants can gain insight from others in the movement

· Providing environments where participants can easily share their experiences in terms of approaches tried, impact achieved, and lessons learned. Platforms can be particularly effective in archiving and indexing this information so that it can be easily accessible to other participants

· Delivering feedback through mechanisms to help capture and aggregate data about impact achieved, making this information available to all participants so that they can learn from each other

· Developing shared leadership by enabling participants to attain increasingly greater responsibilities and administrator rights on the platform based on levels of participation and trust ratings from others

Systems leaders should resist the temptation to over-design these platforms before deploying them. Experience suggests that the most successful platforms are those that begin with very limited functionality and then evolve over time as systems leaders and participants gain more insight about what features and functions can be most helpful in supporting the initiatives required for impact.

As we suggested at the outset, this is very much a work in progress and we invite any and all feedback, including questions that have not been addressed in this perspective and further suggestions of examples of this type of leadership and platforms. We (the authors) are committed to learning more about this important domain and we firmly believe that we will learn faster together. Please join us on this quest.