Operating in Complexity: Fostering Diversity for Adaptation

Mikael Seppälä
Jul 4, 2018 · 7 min read

Whereas Industrial Era organizations operating with the machine metaphor focus on a clear mission (like strategic alignment) and value efficiency and control for predictability, Connected Era organizations face an ever-changing environment in which the previous values are expanded with those of regeneration and emergence.

The thing to understand here is that these Connected Era Responsive Organizations are able to live with paradox and use tensions between the old, new and emerging as positive evolutionary opportunities. This brings us to forstering diversity as a value to deal with complexity.

Traditional silo’d line organizations group together people who are focusing on a set of tasks that are similar to each other leading to teams and groups of Finance, IT, Legal, Customer Service and other specialists who operate under top-down strategic guidance. These are your Kodaks, your Blockbusters, your Nokias. Ever wonder why these organizations don’t seem to have any fresh ideas around — or at least ones that end up being visible to their customers?

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Specialists are a product of our industrial and educational systems who have come through focusing on being those valuable colleagues who can help us with the tough issues that we just can’t Google our way through. These are the guys who took humanity to the moon and who we get to thank for the technological progress we benefit from daily. And this is exactly where the machine metaphor is awesome: what Dr. Ronald Heifetz describes as technical problems, they are ones that you can solve by analysis and subsequent doing. This is what Dave Snowden refers to with the complicated domain of his Cynefin model.

The problem is that many of our organizational and social challenges are not technical ones but rather deeply systemic, intertwined and dynamic (in movement), complex by Snowden’s terms and adaptive by Heifetz’s terms. This is where we have tensions and conflicting perspectives that specialists simply can’t solve because of their limited perspectives. The Agreement/Certainty Matrix expands on this area by describing it as one where agreement and certainty are not evident.

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The thing with our Industrial Era organizations and their practices is that they do not thrive in tensions very well, making them disadvantageously able to cope with complex/adaptive challenges. This is why organizations focus on the incremental or other safe/obvious types of “innovations” and have layers of senior members who are in charge of de-risking efforts based on their previous experience and that happen detached from the actual interactions that create value.

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Another way to frame the same issue is that our (“green”, participatory and consensus-based) group processes tend to favor averages simply because most people belong to the early majorities or late majorities that play things rather safe. However nothing new tends to emerge without our inventors and early adopters who, in their naive enthusiasm, tend to fall prey to “the chasm” of failed ideas.

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The chasm of failed ideas is actually visualized a lot better by illustrator Virpi Oinonen than the original which makes it seem like more linear curve. There are a lot more sharks but you just have to learn to swim (or drown) with them.

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It’s usual that it’s a lot of fun to collaborate with those who think similarly, are inclined in the same way in terms of the innovation distribution curve or share your specialist expertise. However, having fun and working with like-minded people might actually lead to the self-similarity trap. Having different types of groups, specialities and cognitive diversities collaborate is actually very difficult.

Facilitators who guide group processes of bringing forth multiple, even conflicting perspectives, call the feelings and reactions related to the complex area “the Groan Zone”. It’s where everyone thinks the others are completely wrong or simply don’t get it. The wisdom of facilitators is to keep and protect the Psychological Safety of this space that allows conflict (and the diversity that comes with it) to occur but keep it at a level that the group in question can handle. This allows novel and integrative solutions to emerge instead of avoiding conflict and playing it safe.

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Instead of choosing a single way of proceeding with refinement that is our inclination in predictable contexts (or contexts that we’d hope to be predictable), in complexity it’s more useful to accept the initial paradoxes and related diversity as a starting point and research or experiment with conflicting hypotheses within the constraints (time, money, etc.) that we have at hand.

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Professor Scott Page, who has researched and written many books on Diversity and Complexity, advocates for diversity as means to increase the robustness of a system. By robustness he refers to the ability of a given system to absorb external shocks and adapt to them. Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s concept of antifragile and the good old Systems Thinking concept resilience refer to similar abilities. Reminding ourselves of the the Kodaks, the Nokias and the Blockbusters, we see why being robust is important.

As we’ve come to understand, and as complexity-informed consultant Sonja Blignaut states, there are certain issues that help us identify when an issue, task or mission is complex.

Scott Page visualizes the possible average value of solutions in complexity as a landscape with many local optima, peaks related to perspectives (f.ex. expert perspectives) that are created by a set of heuristics (ways of learning in an experimental manner) of which the best solutions are actually combinations of peaks rather than local optima such as the top value B of the graph.

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Enabling diversity is key in allowing teams and organizations to explore a number of perspectives to understand the domain and and how novel forms of value can be created in it.

To help humans understand complexity, it is useful to apply Systems Practices to develop different types of models related to the context. For example Rosalind Armson’s awesome book Growing Wings on the Way — Systems Thinking for Messy Situations is a great reference on the topic but I suggest developing models that are relevant and empowering to the groups that can tackle the issues. A combination of high level systemic models and tangible prototypes help tie big issues to something that we can actually affect somehow.

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Scott Page has written: “When people have different perspectives, communication can be difficult. When one person finds a better solution, she may not be able to explain to others what that solution is. Recall Emerson’s
famous quotation, ‘To be different is to be misunderstood.’”

Whereas dialogue based facilitators attempt to hold the space and enable discussions, I believe design-based facilitation, where cheap and fast models, artefacts or prototypes are the starting point for discussions, helps build a common understanding better than mere the Clash of Clans of specialized (expert) languages. What Snowden calls the probe-sense-respond learning pattern for the complex domain is similar to the combination of storyboarding or planning an experiment and going to shoot something already known to the cavemen. ;-)

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Diversity creates ambiguity that might be uncomfortable to Industrial Era organizations that foster practices that are very focused on efficiency. However, in a complex, dynamic environment fostering diversity is vital to creating multiple perspectives and action towards them to enable a higher robustness and responsiveness of the organization.

Strategic focus (Big Bets) and the agency to do distributed experiments (a thousand flowers) should not be seen as polar opposites to choose between. Rather, responsive organizations enable many types of experiments that allow for both focus and diversity.

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The new forms of work in a world of discontinuity and change actually require us to be more human and less like machines of the Industrial Era set to execute predetermined tasks. Rather than stifling agency, creativity and adaptation, they are paradoxically values that Responsive Organizations are set to cherish in the name of enabling diversity.

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Social Innovation for Systems Change Finland‘s’ intention is to bring together people who want to apply design methods, systems thinking and collaborative approaches to systems change. Whether you’ve already done that successfully or keep bumping into obstacles, come deepen your network, share your experiences and talk about how we might collectively become more effective at changing the systems we want to see flourish.

Join the discussion!
Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/groups/SocInnFI/
Twitter: http://twitter.com/SocInnFI

Contact:

@mikaelseppala

Systems Change Finland

Cultivating a society that can deal with systemic and complex challenges

Mikael Seppälä

Written by

Work: #LivingLabs Specialist @LaureaUAS | Igniting: @systemschangefi @sys_innovation #SystemsChange | On fire: #SystemsThinking #Complexity

Systems Change Finland

Systems Change Finland seeks to cultivate a society that can deal with systemic and complex challenges. The purpose of Systems Change Finland is to promote the application of approaches that help people, organizations and society understand and work with systems and complexity.

Mikael Seppälä

Written by

Work: #LivingLabs Specialist @LaureaUAS | Igniting: @systemschangefi @sys_innovation #SystemsChange | On fire: #SystemsThinking #Complexity

Systems Change Finland

Systems Change Finland seeks to cultivate a society that can deal with systemic and complex challenges. The purpose of Systems Change Finland is to promote the application of approaches that help people, organizations and society understand and work with systems and complexity.

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