Know by trying: Experimenting in complexity

Emily Bazalgette
Patterns for Change
5 min readMay 14, 2021

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Emily Bazalgette, who has 12 years experience supporting the supporting nonprofits through organisational design and coaching, shares some practical approaches to “know by trying”

To develop supportive, people-centred, equitable and humane organisations, we need to accept that (many) organisations are complex systems. This means embracing organisational development (OD) practices that work with complexity, rather than seeking to flatten it. Before we explore these complexity-informed practices, it’s worth examining the “flattening” approach and why it is so persistent.

OD as artefacts to soothe uncertainty

Let us examine the traditional organisational development tool, the Target Operation Model (below). These models are not really about developing our organisations. They are artefacts to soothe uncertainty because the true complexity of the organisation overwhelms us, particularly in the West, where we don’t have established cultural practises that help us to navigate complexity and uncertainty. Confronted with it, we try to separate the interrelated elements to create a story that’s easier to understand. This approach doesn’t work because, in complex systems, relationships are fundamental, stability is undesirable and nonlinear effects abound.

Image credit: https://inform.tmforum.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/04/TOM_Graphic_v4.png. An image of a multi-coloured diagram, a Target Operating Model, and the same image, greyed, with a title overlaid (“An artefact to soothe uncertainty”)

We cannot develop organisations effectively without leaping into the messy reality of our organisations as they actually are. We need to be brave, experiment, and know by trying.

OD in complexity

In a complex system, to know by trying, we need to probe, sense and respond.

One can only really understand a complex system by interacting with it” , Dave Snowden

The Children’s Society is a charity that supports young people. In mid-2019, I held a coaching space with the Senior Leadership Team for 6 weeks. One of the areas we experimented with during that time was “work/life balance”, a constantly shifting, relational experience, created by the interactions between the following actors:

  • individuals within a team
  • the team’s interactions with other teams within and outside the organisation
  • the system the organisation operates in, for example, the commissioning model that funds many charities creates many behaviours that can affect wellbeing and work/life balance
  • individuals and their family and wider networks, influenced by societal dynamics, for example, who does the “second shift” at home?
  • structural elements, for example, childcare policies.

Given this complexity, the “OD as artefact” approach was not going to work. We needed to dive right into the complexity. Each week of the coaching programme, we followed the same cycle: creating organisational probes to experiment with shifting patterns, coming back together to sense-make, responding based on what we’d discovered.

We launched lots of probes, but the most impactful was one of the smallest. It was a line that Clare Bracey added to her email signature:

It took off immediately. People quickly spotted it and asked Claire what it meant and where it came from. They spontaneously added it to their own email signatures. All across the organisation, this small action started conversations and opened up spaces to talk about organisational culture, how people related to each other, what’s acceptable and what work boundaries look like. Even The Children’s Society’s external partners noticed and wanted to talk about it.

Of course, one of the reasons the probe took off is because it’s a small, easy action. But, for something so small, the impact was so disproportionate (a good example of nonlinearity) that I believe it was working deeply, despite its superficial simplicity. It was a signal from the emergent organisation, where people could talk openly about boundaries and needs, to the dominant existing system, where, like many organisations, boundaries and needs are not respected.

The fifth Patterns for Change behaviour: Know by trying written in. black copy on a grey background with part of circle graphic made up of teal blue squiggly lines.

Three practices for knowing by trying

Hold space

If you wish to facilitate organisational development, your role becomes one of holding space, or creating enabling constraints, rather than determining answers.

Investigate your relationship with uncertainty

To do this well with others, understand your own relationship with uncertainty to embrace “unknowing”. What drives your behaviours, when do you try to control people or events, can you tolerate saying “I don’t know” in that important meeting?

Launch many “safe-to-try” prototypes

Because you cannot predict the effect of a probe, or an experiment, you will need to launch lots of them, and they need to be “safe-to-try”, meaning: if they fail, they will not irrevocably damage people or the organisation. Think email signatures, not a policy banning “political” conversations at work.

The probes will work together in ways you won’t always be able to unpick and understand, just like a symphony is a relationship between the orchestral players, their instruments and the sounds they make. Together, those interactions create a beautiful experience. Human, supportive, people-centred, equitable, humane organisational development is a symphony of small, safe-to-try probes. Launched by people brave enough to experiment and know by trying.

Thank you to Sonja Blignaut and Dave Snowden, whose brilliant work informs this post.

If you want to see these concepts explored through an extended pasta metaphor (frankly, who wouldn’t?), watch the 10-minute video at the beginning of this post. To understand user-centred design, a different approach to knowing by trying, read my post about prototyping a new appraisals process for a charity.

Emily Bazalgette helps people and teams to be intentional about how they work and develop through organisational design and coaching. She has over 12 years of experience supporting governments, local government, funders and nonprofits. Emily is driven by helping people to organise, collaborate and find belonging in nourishing ways, and believes that we can design equitable, adaptive, regenerative organisations. Alongside consulting and coaching, Emily advocates for people with chronic illnesses. Chronic illness has brought her creativity, adaptability and resilience, gifts she feels lucky to be able to bring to her organisational design consulting and coaching practices.

Emily is proud to have been part of the Patterns for Change project, read more about how the Patterns were developed.

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Emily Bazalgette
Patterns for Change

Regenerative organisational desiger. Coach. Grief tender. Writer. Creator of GriefSick: https://griefsick.substack.com/. Website: https://www.emrosebaz.com/