Why being smart is not enough — the social skills and structures of tackling complexity

Mieke van der Bijl-Brouwer
School of System Change
19 min readNov 14, 2018


Imagine you are working for an organisation and you are invited to contribute to solving a certain complex problem that needs to be addressed, a problem that is outside the full control of your organisation. For example, you might be working in a university and be asked to think about how to improve the wellbeing of students. Or you are working for a tech business and asked to contribute to making a certain industry more sustainable. You are invited to a meeting to discuss this problem. When you enter the room you first notice that there are no tables and the chairs are positioned in a circle. The person receiving you introduces themselves as ‘the facilitator’. No one seems to be chairing the meeting, there is no meeting agenda and there does not seem to be anyone there who is taking minutes. You do see a massive piece of butchers’ paper stuck on the wall. Then you notice there are a lot of people there you have not met before. You start chatting to the person next to you and within a minute you realise that you totally disagree with the person and the way they think about the problem. But before you can start defending your point of view the person says: ‘your opinion is totally different than mine, how interesting!’ [1].

Sounds exciting? Something you do all the time? Or does it sound like a waste of time? Even though this is a fictive situation, there are many organisations around the world who are adopting ways of working together that are similar to this. These organisations are aiming to address complex societal problems such as climate change, housing affordability, crime, and chronic health issues, and are applying new ways of thinking about these problems, because traditional problem-solving techniques have not been effective. At the same time, they are applying and experimenting with new ways of collaborating and working together. As an academic working in a faculty of transdisciplinary innovation I am very interested in these ways of working. Earlier this year I had the opportunity to conduct a small study on this topic as part of a 6-month ‘professional experience program’ generously offered by my current employer, the University of Technology Sydney. In this blog post I will share my main insights.

To explore this topic I spent one month each at two organisations who have expertise in addressing complex challenges: the MaRS Solutions Lab (Toronto), and Oslo School of Architecture and Design (Oslo). And I conducted interviews with six experts in systems & complexity thinking and/or in facilitation of complex collaborations.

So what did I learn?

There is one thing that became very clear to me and that is that thinking about how we work together and how we behave as individuals, is at least as important as how we think about innovation in complex problem situations. Or, as Cheryl Dahle (Fliplabs, Carnegie Mellon University) mentioned:

“The insights, the research, the smarts, the intellectual heft part of this world gets you to a certain place and everything after that is about relationships”.

A second thing that I learned is that these ways of working together have characteristics that are very similar to those of the complex systems that these collaborations aim to influence, namely that:

  • These ways of working are systemic, acknowledging that the whole is more than the sum of its parts
  • There is a pattern or structure to these ways of working, but at the same time, they are unpredictable, and leave space for ‘emergence’
  • They have many parts that are invisible
  • And they are fundamentally different from the dominant current ways of working in organisations that are focused on efficiency, optimisation and exploitation.

To explain that, let me first take a step back and explain briefly what a complex system is and why it is relevant.

Thinking about complex problems and systems

Complex problems are part of complex systems. Complex problems don’t live on their own, they are interrelated. Solving one problem here, might create another problem there. Systems thinkers therefore often prefer to talk about ‘complex problem situations’ or ‘problematique’. Birger Sevaldson (Oslo School of Architecture & Design, Systems Oriented Design) explained that Norwegians have a specific word for it: ‘problemfelt’, roughly translated as ‘problem field’, which are basically fields of interrelated problems.

The interrelatedness of complex problems means that we are essentially looking at a system in which these problems live. A system is an ‘indivisible whole’. A system is not the sum of the behaviour of its parts, it’s the product of their interactions [2]. To improve a system we therefore need to understand the relationships between parts, and not just focus on improving the parts (e.g. in a sports team it is just as important to focus on how players relate to each other, as it is to improve the strength of individual players. That’s why an all-star team is often not as effective as you would expect based on the strength of individual players).

A complex system is a particular type of system, often referred to as a ‘complex adaptive system’. Key characteristics of these systems are ‘self-organisation’ and ‘emergence’. An example that is often used is the flock of birds. Self-organisation means that local interactions between parts or ‘agents’ (in the example the birds), result in some form of order (the complex motion and shape of the flock). Complex systems are also adapting to their context and as a result they are dynamic and constantly moving.

A complex adaptive system cannot be controlled. There is no one bird in control of the whole flock. Complex systems are also unpredictable. Patterns can emerge that are unexpected. A particularly interesting application of the complex systems view is the application in managing organisations. These views acknowledge the limited controllability and predictability of the social systems (groups of human beings) that organisations are, and focus on understanding and leveraging the relationships between those people [3].

The idea of complexity was well articulated by Laura Winn (Forum for the Future): “You have to able to work with whatever is emerging. You have to see the constant change, not being able to take ‘photographs’ and using static approaches. And you have to be able to dance between patterns that we can see in the world and surprises.”

Some parts of complex systems can be seen, but there are often invisible powers at play in how a complex system behaves. This is often represented in an ‘iceberg model’ [4] which is a way to express what’s happening under the surface. Above the waterline we can see certain behaviour or events happening, but these behaviours might be influenced by less visible structures (rules, resources) and values, beliefs, and assumptions that shape the system.

How can we solve complex problems?

So what can we do then to solve problems that live in complex systems? Well, a complex problem cannot be ‘solved’ as such, because of abovementioned interrelationship with other problems. Instead we can try to shift a system in a direction that we find more desirable. As a complex system lives itself in a larger changing system (e.g. an organisation in a certain part of society), these systems need to adapt to that changing context.

But we don’t just have to passively respond to outside powers or influences. We can also create new interventions and innovate to try to change a system. In fact, according to David Snowden’s Cynefin framework, the only way to understand a complex system in the first place is by interacting with it, using a strategy he calls ‘probe, sense, and respond’ [5]. In a complicated system it is possible to develop a good solution if you have enough expertise (for example aerospace engineers designing an aeroplane). But in a complex system that is impossible, and you need to do things, learn from it, and continue based on the outcome (a prototype, or a safe to fail experiment).

In addition to this, there is an idea that it is useful to run multiple prototypes or experiments in parallel. Erik Beinhocker [6] calls this approach in The Origin of Wealth to ‘vary, select, and amplify’, which is based on the evolutionary algorithm. He suggests that organisations need to evolve, running a continuous ‘portfolio’ of prototypes and experiments, where the good ones are continued and amplified, and the bad ones are cancelled. But this idea goes beyond individual organisations or businesses. If we want to shift a system we can also collaboratively run a portfolio of experiments in a ‘network’. A great example is the Future of Fish [7], that was founded by Cheryl Dahle, in which entrepreneurs collectively work towards more sustainable fisheries. Another example is the ‘Recover Edmonton’ initiative facilitated by MaRS Solutions lab, in which multiple teams across the city are testing prototypes to improve urban wellness. As Cheryl Dahle mentioned:

“Complexity means that even the smartest person cannot come up with the solution, which means there is no one solution. You need multiple solutions working in concert on different facets of the problem.”

In a ‘designing network’ multiple people and organisations develop and implement initatives that collectively are aimed at moving a system into a certain direction, further described in this blog post with Claire Buré.

Working together

This also starts to explain why we need to work together to address complex problem situations. On the one hand, to be able to understand the nature of complex systems, we will need to understand the multiple perspectives of the people who have a stake in that system. On the other hand, we will also need to somehow coordinate the multiple interventions and experiments that we are running. When Cheryl Dahle studied how social entrepreneurs work she concluded:

“the work of social entrepreneurship truly came to fruition when it came to a level of collaboration and when they were able to build bridges between what they were doing, what government was doing and what other parts of society were doing”

Who needs to work together to address complexity?

This is a question I asked all the interviewees as well as many other people I met during the six months. Everyone agreed that the collaboration should happen between ‘people who have skin in the game’. Many interviewees were also critical of the ‘self-selection’ mechanisms that are often used in these situations where a paying client decides who gets invited to a certain collaboration. Peter Jones (OCAD University) mentioned: “We are often relegated in our innovation labs, in our social organising contexts, to work with participants who self-select to participate as opposed to the careful selection of representative stakeholders who have skin in the game, who are committed participants in a deep sense and who recognise the investment in the actual social systems outside of the room.”

The problem with self-selection is that first of all these initiatives often have very little impact (according to Peter Jones leading to ‘advisory reports based on sticky notes on the wall’), and secondly don’t represent the required variety of perspectives. Alex Ryan (MaRS Solutions Lab) mentioned that it is important to have diversity of perspectives, including for example representatives of future generations and other species. To achieve this, interviewees used sophisticated methods to select contributors.

Peter Jones: “excellent stakeholder sampling is 90% of good dialogue”

For example, Peter Jones and his team use the ‘dialogic design method’ (based on Alexander Christakis’ structured dialogic design methodology), which applies Ashby’s law of requisite variety as one of the frameworks to select participants. “The law of requisite variety demands that an appreciation of the diversity of perspectives and stakeholders is essential in managing complex situations.”[8]

A second selection criteria that was mentioned is that participants should have a certain mindset or attitude. A first attitude is about being comfortable with the inherent ambiguity and opaqueness of complex problem situations. People have limits with regard to ambiguity and opaqueness, and the fact that there is no clear end state or pathway can make people feel very uncomfortable. The experts indicated that these limits need to be respected, but at the same time, people’s ‘cognitive rigidity’ can be tested before participating in a collaboration to prevent that they might be embarking on a journey that is too hard to complete for them.

Participants should also be willing to learn and not assume that they already know the answer. Cheryl Dahle mentioned interestingly that they often do not invite professors for this reason, because of their ‘cone of expertise’. Another interesting element of mindset that this expert mentioned, and which they use as a selection mechanism, is people’s relationship to risk. Particularly in the early stages of a project, when there is a lot of ambiguity, they are looking for people who are open to taking risk (e.g. the early adopters in the adoption of innovation curve). In later stages, when there is more information available from experiments that have been executed, the ‘laggards’ might be invited. As Cheryl Dahle mentioned: “we invite people based on mindset and their relationship to risk. We start with the people who want to get things moving. When you have momentum, you start inviting the others because then it is less risky for example for a government person to say they would like to get on board”.

So how do these people work together then?

Just as with any innovation project, there is no one ‘best’ way of doing things when it comes to working together to address complex issues. In general though, the approaches seem to include a very strong focus on building trusted relationships; they recognise dialogue, conversation and working with tensions as key skills; and they have a format or structure that enables emergence.

Building trusted relationships

All experts I interviewed mentioned the importance to take time to build trusted relationships in collaborations. This makes sense, because if you are embarking on an already ambiguous journey, it would help if at least the ‘co-passengers’ could be trusted. Everyone I interviewed about how they invited participants to collaborative sessions mentioned how they interview people before a session to build relationships. When I observed a collaborative session with a new group of stakeholders by MaRS solutions lab, I noticed how much time they took for people to get to know each other. And Cheryl Dahle mentioned how a positive culture is created by excluding ‘people who suck’and by investing in building community, for example by organising events, such as a cocktail party at an annual seafood trade show.This shows how important person to person interaction is in building trust.

Dialogue & conversation skills

Working together for complexity also requires certain skills. On a very basic level this is about conversation. As Alex Ryan mentioned, “when working together, conversation is at the heart”. The question is then what a ‘good’ conversation is. One important characteristic of such conversations is that they are productive and creative. The people in the conversation do not assume that they already know what the answer is, but they understand that the conversation can lead to new insights that none of these people had before that conversation started. This is what is called a good ‘dialogue’. Peter Senge explains this well in the Fifth Discipline [9], referring to David Bohm’s theory of dialogue:

“we must look on thought as a systemic phenomenon arising from how we interact and discourse with one another. […] The purpose of dialogue is to go beyond any one individual’s understanding.” (Sense, 1990, p223).

The importance of dialogue was acknowledged by the experts I interviewed. For example, Peter Jones mentioned: “If we don’t have an understanding of working with dialogue, then we risk the under-conceptualisation of the designing contexts in which stakeholders are expected to engage.”

Dialogue is fundamentally different from a debate, presentation or pitch, which is only aimed at making your point or trying to transfer information from one person to another. Dialogue therefore also requires specific skills. Alex Ryan explained how the technology underlying conversation is actually quite simple, namely QLR: question, listen, response. There are several ways of asking productive questions. For example, Andreas Wettre (Giramar Consulting), an experienced facilitator, talked in our interview about ‘curious questions’ and how we can work with the type of questions that family therapists use to explore the systemic nature of family problems. These questions are called ‘circular questions’ and can be used to identify patterns of interactions, as opposed to ‘lineal questions’ that are aimed at discovering more linear (non systemic) causality, as explained by Karl Tomm in this video. Peter Jones mentioned how they carefully craft a ‘triggering question’, the inquiry question in dialogues with larger groups of stakeholders that is meaningful to the participants in the room. And MaRS Solutions Lab uses ‘wicked questions’ that can reveal entangled challenges and possibilities that are not intuitively obvious.

Questioning should be complemented with listening. This skill is explained well by Richard Sennett in his book Together [10] “usually, when we speak about communication skills, we focus on how to make a clear presentation. [..] Listening well requires a different set of skills, those of closely attending to and interpreting what others say before responding, making sense of their gestures and silences as well as declarations. Though we may have to hold ourselves back to observe well, the resulting conversation will become a richer exchange for it, more cooperative in character, more dialogic.”

Working with conflict and tensions

An additional skill required when working together for complexity is how to work with the tensions that often emerge in these collaborations. People with different perspectives might not necessarily come to an agreement on how to achieve desired outcomes. Interestingly enough, this agreement is not always required. Two experts mentioned how they use Adam Kahane’s idea of ‘stretch collaboration’ [11] to deal with this. Cheryl Dahle mentioned: “There is this assumption that we have to get to consensus. But that assumption is a mistake. We don’t have to agree. [..] Let’s take the part that is conflict and table it, create a diagram on what we disagree and agree on, and work there where we agree. People tend to focus on disagreement instead of agreement. But usually people agree on directionality, ‘let’s move the needle toward’ instead of defining an end goal”. If we know how to work with tensions and potential conflict, we can make these conversations productive.

One of the keys to productive collaboration in complex contexts is to learn these skills, as explained by Richard Sennett: “the most important fact about hard cooperation is that it requires skill[..], listening well, behaving tactfully, finding points of agreement and managing disagreement [..]”.

Systemic structures for collaboration

In addition to the skills required for working together for complexity, there are also various structures and methods for collaboration available that can help groups of people who are addressing complex issues. Things that were mentioned by interviewees for example included liberating structures (great resource of collaboration structures), the art of hosting, deep democracy, and theory U. What was interesting about these ways of working is that they do have a certain structure, but at the same time are not rigid and enable emergence and unexpected outcomes. These structures let go of the idea that these ways of working together can be controlled. Adam Kahane explains in Collaborating with the Enemy: “conventional collaboration assumes that we can control the focus, the goal, the plan to reach this goal, and what each person must do to implement this goal. Stretch collaboration, by contrast, offers a way to move forward without being in control” [12]. One interesting element of collaboration in complex contexts is how decisions are made about which ideas are going to be implemented. Rather than trying to coordinate who is doing what top-down, these ways of collaborating work with ideas that have passionate champions who will ensure that these ideas get implemented.

Emergence is also enabled by the physical elements of collaborative structures. For example, people often sit in a ‘talking circle’ to encourage more open and equal conversations. Andreas Wettre mentioned how he often does not use tables so people cannot hide behind their laptops. But talking circles also have a deeper meaning and originate in indigenous cultures to enable equal and participatory conversations. For example, I attended an amazing talking circle dialogue organised by Peter Jones and facilitated by native Canadian Kevin Best about climate change, in which all people in the room got an opportunity to share their perspective and experiences. It’s interesting to see how talking circles are slowly becoming more common in society. I attended many events this year where the talking circle was used as the format for conversation, and we are increasingly using it in education as well.

Another physical element is the visualisations that were used by the interviewees in their collaborative sessions. Alex Ryan explained how visualisation of conversations makes them become cumulative, where you build on ideas instead of setting ideas against each other. It also enhances reflection, because you can critique ideas without making it personal. Birger Sevaldson and his colleagues developed the ‘giga-mapping’ technique for this purpose, which is central to the systems oriented design methodology, a ‘super extensive mapping across multiple layers and scales with the goal of investigating relations between seemingly separate categories’. Birger explained how these maps serve as a dialogic tool. The maps are constructed in conversations, but at the same time the maps guide dialogues. They help people acknowledge different perspectives, while at the same time supporting sense-making and designing possible interventions.

While at the Oslo School of Architecture and design, I engaged in a giga-mapping session with Linda Blaasvær and Birger Sevaldson about the systemic nature of wellbeing of university staff and students.

Collaborating to tackle complexity is complex

In summary, collaborating to tackle complexity is complex. Like a complex adaptive system, these collaborations involve a lot of ambiguity and invisible forces, they depend on ‘local interactions’ through personal relationships, and they exhibit patterns and structures as well as emergence of unexpected behaviour and outcomes. I learned that these innovative collaborations can be enabled by taking care in selecting the required diverse range of people to work with, taking time to build trusted relationships, gaining dialogic skills, and using structures that let go of the idea that the collaboration can be controlled and instead promote productive and innovative outcomes by building on the collective creative potential of collaborators.

What this means for us as individual human beings

One challenge with such complex collaborations is that they require different attitudes from ourselves, not just from others. We need to be open to learning, open to others, to let go of control, and to take responsibility for our actions. For example, I found it interesting that all experts I interviewed were continuously learning about how to do things better and did not assume that there was one best way of doing things. They were constantly trying new models and experimenting with new ways of working. Laura Winn referred to this as being ‘methodology agnostic’. We also need to be open towards others, embrace diversity and not always assume that we are right. And we need to be ok with letting go of control. For myself this is an ongoing challenge, as most people who know me know that my preferred way of working is to take control. We also need to take responsibility for our actions, and recognise that we are part of systems too and as such contribute to the functioning of the system as a whole (as explained well in Kevin Slavin’s article: you’re not stuck in traffic, you are traffic). But these attitudes cannot be forced upon people. We can only change ourselves, role-model desired behaviour and provide others with the gift of experiences, questions, and stories that enable them to change themselves if they want to. For myself it helps being surrounded by people who embody these attitudes, and also having ‘critical friends’ that don’t shy away from giving feedback if I don’t practice what I preach. But the majority of people don’t work in environments in which they are surrounded by people who embody these attitudes, and the organisational and system structures that they are part of, do not promote such attitudes and behaviours.

Complex collaborations in organisations and systems.

On a systems level, the main challenge of complex collaborations is that they are fundamentally different from the current prevailing ways of working together in organisations. We are used to working in highly controlled and prescriptive ways, from a meeting level to an organisational and system structure level. In meetings there is usually a person chairing the session who has control over who is talking when, and there is a fixed agenda that does not allow deviation from what the group is supposed to talk about. On an organisational level we have siloed departments, fixed roles with fixed tasks, hierarchical structures with top-down controlled strategies, action plans and funding mechanisms. These ways of working are not wrong in itself, but they do have a different purpose. Our dominant ways of working are aimed at optimisation and on efficiency, but they do not promote adaptation and the exploration required to be able to work innovatively in complex situations. They enable us to do things right, but not necessarily to do the right thing. Erik Beinhocker describes how both ways of working need to co-exist. Again using the evolutionary model, he explains how we need to explore and innovate to vary and select, but at the same time we need to exploit and execute to amplify successful interventions. In the innovation management literature this is often referred to as the ‘ambidextrous organisation’. The question is what this means when we combine traditional and complex collaborations and associated attitudes and behaviours. And what this means when we look beyond individual organisations, to how we collectively work in networked systems to address complex issues. For example, existing funding models in the public and social sector have a large influence on how individual organisations behave. Cheryl Dahle for example explained how the way that many foundations fund social entrepreneurs, puts them in competing positions instead of collaborative positions.


If we want to address the complex problem situations that the world is facing, being a smart systems thinker and innovator is not enough. We need to engage in new ways of collaborating that promote continuous, productive and collective learning and innovation. These collaborations require us to learn social skills, build social structures, and adopt attitudes of openness to learning, trust and responsibility, however hard it is to let go of the behaviours and structures that hold us back.


I would like to thanks MaRS Solutions Lab and Oslo School of Architecture and Design for hosting me, and would like to thank all interviewed experts for their time and openness to share their expertise. I would also like to thank Nick Hazell for providing feedback on an earlier version of this article. Finally, I would like to thank the UTS Faculty of Transdisciplinary Innovation for offering me the opportunity to explore this topic as part of the Professional Experience Program.

[1]This is a quote from Andreas Wettre, who I interviewed as part of this study, and who is an experienced facilitator of workshops that support management teams in addressing complex issues.

[2]See for an explanation of systems ‘If Russ Ackoff had given a TED Talk’

[3]As for example described by Ralph Stacey in Stacey, Ralph. “The Theory of Complex Responsive Processes — Understanding Organizations as Patterns of Interaction between People.” In Tools and Techniques of Leadership and Management : Meeting the Challenge of Complexity, 9–22. New York, NY: Routledge, 2012.


[5]Snowden, David J., and Mary E. Boone. “A Leader’s Framework for Decision Making.” Harvard Business Review 85, no. 11 (December 2007 2007): 68–76.

[6]Beinhocker, Eric. The Origin of Wealth: Evolution, Complexisty, and the Radical Remaking of Economics. Boston, Massachusetts: Harvard Business School Press, 2006.

[7]Dahle provides a case study of the evolution oft he Future of Fish in this article.

[8]Christakis, Alexander N., and Kenneth C. Bausch. How People Harness Their Collective Wisdom and Power to Construct the Future in Co-Laboratories of Democracy. Information Age Publishing Inc., 2006.

[9]Senge, Peter M. The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization. Doubleday, 1990.

[10]Sennett, Richard. Together — the Rituals, Pleasures and Politics of Cooperation. New Haven, US & London, UK: Yale University Press, 2012.

[11]Kahane, Adam. Collaborating with the Enemy — How to Work with People You Don’t Agree with or Like or Trust.Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc., 2017.




Mieke van der Bijl-Brouwer
School of System Change

I'm a researcher, educator, and designer with an interest in systemic design, complexity, transdisciplinarity and public & social innovation - views are my own.