A good question. Maybe it’s not broken. To explore this question we’re going to start with a quick-fire history lesson. I promise this is relevant!
- BC: In the interest of time we’ll skip BC.
- Roman Period: We’ll fast forward through the Roman period too. It lasted 500 years. They did really well 👍.
- Middle Ages (C5–15th): I’ve condensed these 1000 years into a tweet — Intellectuals were repressed by the church. Any fancy ideas about evolution and such were not welcome.
- The Enlightenment (C17–18th): Intellectual energies came to fruition. We’re talking Descartes — reason is the chief source of knowledge; Darwin — evolution trumps creationism; and Newton — cause = effect.
We’re going to hit pause on the history lesson here. It’s time for a little science, because with Newton, science was liberated!
Newton helped us to understand the laws of motion and universal gravitation. He’s one of the most influential scientists of all time. His theories formed the dominant scientific viewpoint for centuries. With Newton’s discoveries we gained a new, deeper understanding of what we call linear systems, i.e. a system that we can disassemble to understand the behaviour of its elements.
There are some golden rules in linear systems, these include:
- Order: these systems are orderly; within them cause = effect. Always.
- Reductionism: they can be reduced; the whole is the sum of its parts. Always.
- Predictability: everything within the system can be predicted once global behaviour is defined. Always.
Once you know the workings of the system, knowledge stops. The end. There are no surprises in a linear system. Within them, knowledge = order, and greater knowledge = greater order. The more you understand a linear system, the more control you can have over it. If you can understand exactly how it works, then its workings are entirety predicable.
Linear systems exhibit certain characteristics:
- Top-down management: they respond well to top-down management.
- Industrial assembly line: they follow the same norms as an industrial assembly line.
- Universal laws: they follow universal laws that can be applied at all times and places.
Examples of linear systems include watches, engines, rockets and industrial assembly lines. An assembly line within a sausage factory will not surprise you one day by turning out hamburgers. And yep, even rocket science is linear. Sure it’s incredibly complicated, but it’s also orderly. We can understand rockets because the whole is the sum of its parts, and if we understand them entirely then cause will = effect. We are in control. Understanding the whole system means we can predict precisely how it will work. We can even send two rockets up to space and have them return to earth landing simultaneously and side by side.
Check out this landing. It’s mind blowing. And it’s linear 🚀:
Newtonian Linear Thinkers
The Newtonian linear thinker’s vision was an orderly universe driven by observable and unchangeable laws. Their mission was to gain all knowledge. They believed that over time the orderly nature of all phenomena would be found. And when that happened, we’d understand the past, know the present, and be able to predict the future! Even in our organisations… because all systems are linear, right?
Newtonian linear thinking has much to commend. It lay the foundations for the industrial revolution, and the Victorians became phenomenal engineers. They built our railways systems, canals, schools, hospitals, our organisation systems — many of these are still with us today. Understandably, this success created a high degree of trust in the power of human reason to tackle any situation.
But it was too good to last. After a few centuries doubts began to emerge over whether all systems are in fact linear. Soon after The Victorian era ended (1901), Einstein happened! While he kept a picture of Newton on his study wall, it was Enistein’s theory of relativity (1905) that pushed the conventional wisdom of the day beyond Newtonian limits. His theory was a direct challenge to Newton, as it showed us that cause and effect are not necessarily linked.
Not all Systems are Linear
Einstein’s work showed us that not all systems are linear, and the whole is not necessarily the sum of its parts. Suddenly, not all phenomena fit the classical framework. Newtonian linear theory was no longer universally applicable — it had to live alongside probabilistic. Newtonians were livid.
Linear thinking’s weakness was it’s arrogance, said my wonderfully charismatic complexity lecturer Dr Samir Rihani circa 2005. The Newtonian thinker believed that there was an endpoint to knowledge, and that with complete knowledge we could be Gods and control all things.
If only we could predict and control politics, economics and organisations!
All good things come to an end, right? Sadly not. Or at least not yet. Proof that all systems aren’t linear has not been accepted lightly. Not least in our organisations, most of which refuse to accept that there are new realities in town. This double measure of defiance means we still suffer the hangover from Sir Isaac Nuisance. In spite of the collapse of Newtons laws in certain spheres, orderly thinking spread to the ‘social sciences’ in the 1950’s and ’60s.
It’s vision has led to extreme suffering — in our economies, our politics, and our organisations, where top-down management is firmly entrenched. See the social ‘sciences’ wanted in on the success of the physical sciences. They were jealous. And it didn’t take a huge intellectual leap to apply the lessons learnt to the social realm, which adopted the same laws, confidence, optimism and order in their approach. Politics and economics even began to identify as sciences 🤔. The upshot: in today’s organisations Newton doesn’t just have a seat on the board, he’s often the Chair! This means that linear thinking sets the boundaries for what is considered legitimate practice.
Orderly solutions to complex problems infect our politics, our organisations and our daily lives.
This is a problem. But how on earth does Newton manage to have a seat on our organisation’s boards in 2019?!
Paradigms set the boundaries for what is considered legitimate practice. They determine the way that we make sense of the world. We are all working and thinking within the confines of paradigms.
A splash of history again. In the 17th century Galileo said the earth orbits the sun and it is not the centre of the universe. He was quite right. And he was placed under indefinite house arrest by the Roman Catholic Church in 1633 until his death in 1642. Why? Because he ventured outside the established paradigm of the time.
Paradigms set the boundaries for what is considered legitimate practice.
In short, they have our brains by the balls. And worryingly, they are largely unknown to the people whose thinking they constrain (this is called Paradigm Blindness). The consequence is that leaders refuse to change course, prescribing only slight variations to failed methods because they believe they are on the right track and only need to tweak the current formula. Let’s get a consultant, ah that didn’t work, lets get another one. Oh, we’re still broken. Must be the manager, replace them! Then every 4 years or so, I guess we need a restructure… Sound familiar? It’s because most consultants, like our managers, only trade in linear. You’ve been warned..
So while there is a new paradigm in town, it’s just emerging verrry slowly. I’ve termed this paradigm lag. But what is this emerging paradigm?
Complexity Theory 😬
Complexity was borne out of the physical sciences when Einstein discovered that not all phenomena play by linear rules. The physical sciences began to distinguish between linear and non-linear systems. Complexity acknowledges that a given cause may lead to more than one outcome. That while we can understand and explain why an event happened earlier today, and given the same situation the same thing may happen tomorrow, on day three something completely different might happen. Because universal laws do not apply in non-linear systems. With complexity there is emergence. Evolution lives here. Therefore we cannot predict and control events. The implication of this is that humans cannot be Gods, as Newtonians had believed.
Non-linear phenomena reflect the uncertainty and complexity of most social phenomena, including our organisations.
Complexity is the place that agile, self-organising teams and self-management all come from. It dislodges current management theory by accepting that organisations are complex adaptive systems. Within these types of system cause and effect do not apply, and top-down management is a (very) poor fit.
Complex Adaptive Systems
In a complex adaptive systems we cannot predict or control what will happen with certainty because of the sheer number of random interactions within the system. As with linear systems, there are golden rules in complex adaptive systems:
- Cause does not = effect.
- The whole is not the sum of its parts.
- They can produce emergent properties.
- We can’t predict with certainty what will happen within them.
- They are open ended, capable of uncertain and lengthy evolution.
- Control is limited.
Some examples of complex adaptive systems include:
- Weather: we’ve all looked out of the window to see rain when our phones tell us it’s sunny. Certainly in the UK!
- Traffic: can you predict with 💯 certainty what the cars in front of you and behind you will do?
- Forests: sure we can plant trees in a line and hope they remain orderly. But what birds will sit in those trees? What have they been eating? Do they need the toilet?
- Ecosystems: ecosystems are interconnected systems and communities of living organisms such as microbes, plants, and animals. Also non-living abiotic components such as sunlight, water, air, minerals.
- Species evolution: the White-throated rails in Madagascar became extinct 1,000 years ago and then very recently re-evolved. Nobody predicted this!
- Cities: cities have mayors like Boris Johnson. What’s he gonna do next? Nobody knows…
- Humans: …because humans are complex adaptive systems, so at times utterly unpredictable.
- Organisations: and our organisations are complex adaptive systems because they are full of humans! Amongst other reasons.
Within such systems it isn’t possible to take actions that will guarantee a desired outcome. So top-down management is not suited to them (tell your boss!).
Well it’s too late to bludgeon Newton to death with a bag of Granny Smiths, though that would make for a great headline. In any case he was right about loads of stuff. Linear isn’t all wrong, it’s just we have more information now, and complexity can explain more stuff better.
Linear systems and complex adaptive systems coexist.
Today’s organisation, unlike some of their predecessors in the industrial revolution, are complex adaptive systems. We need to treat them as such. This means stopping treating them like machines and waiting for the right levers to be pulled in order to achieve a given outcome. Organisations are not technical problems that require technical solutions. We cannot continue to treat an ecosystem as if it was an engineering problem.
This calls for a fresh approach, one that recognises that an organisation’s development goes beyond economic growth and embraces human development. If people are not free to interact in a healthy and educated way then an organisation’s development — both economic and human — will likely stall. So our fresh approach must be participatory. Linear approaches stifle interaction by attempting to implement, in a top-down fashion, the conditions we perceive as necessary for success.
Complexity takes a different tack. It aims to make way for the conditions required for an organisation to emerge and thrive. It seeks to install the means and not the ends. To put in place and secure the conditions that allow the ends to evolve through experimentation. Top-down management tends to repress this approach, wasting an enormous amount of energy trying to control what cannot be controlled in our organisations. When we apply complexity to leadership we finally reject the linear principles that have guided us for so long.
Once we abandon the illusion that our organisations are orderly, and accept the humbling limits of knowledge, a new style of leadership can emerge. One that embraces uncertainty; mistakes; learning; and adaptation.
Management is much much simpler when you understand the nature of the system you are working with and it’s inherent constraints.
There is no magic medicine when it comes to finding an approach that will work for your organisation. Successful organisations don’t swallow the same capsule or follow the same path. Indeed the remedy for one organisation might well kill another. However there are patterns that are often exhibited by leaders who understand that our organisations are complex adaptive systems. Such leaders:
- Are much less inclined to try to micromanage or attempt to predict and control.
- Become far more interested in how organisational culture can drive behaviour.
- Tend to have an experimental mindset, realising that little is certain.
- Realise that in complex systems, you can’t actually plan, so you plan for experimentation.
- Try lots of things, and double down on what works.
Complexity provides a framework within which organisations can be advanced more efficiently.
Self-organisation is emergent. We can only encourage it’s emergence by seeking to create the conditions required and nudging our organisation in the directions just listed. These conditions include trust, psychological safety and a healthy feedback culture, amongst others. And these conditions point us to practices such as distributed decision making, transparency, self- organising teams, and being purpose led (again, amongst others).
There are more patterns in organisations that have successfully reinvented the way that they work, but these vary from one organisation to another, and (crucially) will only emerge if people are free to interact and capable of interacting. Self-management, new ways of working, the future of work, ‘teal’, self- organising teams— whatever we choose to call it — cannot be made to happen with force.
So what do I want you to take away?
If you recall just one thing from these words later on in your day, 🙏 let it be this:
Organisations are complex adaptive systems.
Accepting this and treating our organisations as complex adaptive systems will make our lives much easier. This means letting go of our deeply entrenched tendencies to attempt to predict and control what cannot be predicted or controlled.
And what can you do about this?
Well, tomorrow, you can:
- Organise a lunch and learn and watch the talk below (45 mins). I know of no better introduction to new ways of working that embrace complexity.
- Then spend time discussing new practices you would like to try, and old practices you would like to stop. Why not try a circle discussion for this.
- Seek to agree on a time bound, safe to fail experiment — try a new process to see if it’s more efficient, or remove a process that slows things down.
- Get a date in the diary to evaluate the experiment and to discuss new ones.
- Remember that your organisation is, and always will be, a complex adaptive system.
Reinventing Work isn’t easy, but it is worthwhile. So please, do try this at work. And reach out for help if you would like any pointers.
Credit: much of what you read comes from my dusty university notes of the lectures delivered by Dr Samir Rihani at the University of Liverpool in 2004/05. Samir is the best educator I’ve ever encountered.
My words are also influenced by various David Snowden YouTube clips, Aaron Dignan’s fantastic book, Brave New Work, and countless podcasts. Thank you all, but special thanks to Samir.