Two things prompted me to publish this post. One is to show you a wee bit of the ebook I’m just polishing – it’s finished but I keep tinkering with it (a bad habit) – and the other reason is because it gives me an opportunity to try to explain why I think Ashby’s Law of Requisite Variety is hugely relevant for businesses adapting to seismic technological, demographic and economic trends.
I summarise nine high-performance principles in the ebook, one of which is Complexity yourself – and others. Thinking about it, I think this principle is perhaps the one that most defines a break from the past – although complexity has always been a feature of organisations. I’d like to spend a minute thinking about complexity before saying what I mean by ‘complexify yourself and others’.
This Wikipedia entry says that “in general usage, complexity tends to be used to characterize something with many parts in intricate arrangement.” But that’s complicated, not complex.
The entry goes on to talk about complexity in terms of interactions among objects — and the unpredictable outcomes that emerge from the dynamics of the interactions is the essence of complexity. But for me it’s more than that.
I think that complexity takes on another dimension when people interact. We are not pre-determined entities or objects – we ourselves are complex. We change and develop. How we feel and act on a particular day emerges from many things that can affect us.
We’re born with capabilities and personalities but these aren’t fixed. We interact with our environments and are changed by them. We learn and adapt. I can only speak for myself but I behave differently according to who I am with, how well I know someone and what the context is — formal, informal, familiar, new and perhaps unsettling?
Consider if you and I were working together. I do or say something and this might influence what you do or say. Your response to me similarly has the potential to influence what I do or say. And so it continues. What emerges from our interactions is fraught with all sorts of tensions and possibilities. High divorce rates in many countries suggest how difficult it is for two people to continue to see eye-to-eye.
If you think about it, organisations don’t really exist. What do exist are inter-connected groups of people interacting to make things happen or to prevent things from happening. That’s it. All the rest — support systems like IT, HR and facilities — is all about giving people the tools, rules and places people need to get on with it.
So it’s no surprise then that organisations can be emotionally challenging places to work when we have to learn to work with people in complex relationships, where knowledge itself is the outcome of increasingly complex contexts, and where the complexity multiplies with the number and diversity of people that are involved.
Here comes the science bit
My earliest insights on how organisations work came from three particular thinkers – the great systems thinker, Russell Ackoff; the cybernetic theorist, Stafford Beer; and the social psychologist, Karl Weick. I hope you’ll indulge me for a minute – or of course you can skip this section and go straight to What to do?
Let’s start with Ackoff. He said that you could look at a system (an organisation is a system of interacting systems) in different ways at the same time. Looked at structurally, the systems that make up an organisation are a divisible whole. The same organisation viewed functionally – what it does in action – is indivisible. The system emerges from what people do together. It is therefore dynamic and unpredictable.
Another systems thinker, Peter Checkland, makes a similar point. He makes the difference between systematic thinking and systemic thinking. Systematic thinking describes integrated components. Systemic thinking models whole complex networks of interactions.
Then there’s Karl Weick. He says that organisations don’t exist and that all you have at any given moment are groups of people working together to achieve or frustrate sets of objectives – i.e. complex networks of interactions. At least that is my interpretation.
People working together is complex? You can say that again. If you are interested, he shows how human relationships can become very quickly and increasingly complex by analysing possible group dynamics and alliances among just nine people. It was an eye-opener for me when I first came across it in The Social Psychology of Organising.
What to do?
People are at the core of what organisations do – even when manufacturing and engineering were more prevalent, it was people who made and operated machines. All organisations are then complex to some extent — they all involve people — but they vary in complexity arising from things like:
- Cultural diversity
- Changing balance of power towards connected, demanding customers — because this implies agility in anticipating and responding
- Blurring, inter-connected organisational boundaries
- The extent to which knowledge is bleeding-edge — perhaps in new industries at the intersection of art and science, and involving new materials and technologies.
So what to do in the face of this increasing complexity? We can try ways to simplify the complexity and / or we can expand our range of responses to it.
An obvious way to expand our range of responses is to develop our skills and capabilities, and to connect with others whose knowledge complements our own – as well as connecting to inspire and trigger-off new ideas together.
And this was Stafford Beer’s influence on me. He developed W. Ross Ashby’s Law of Requisite Variety. He uses variety as another word for complexity. And Ashby said that “only variety absorbs variety.”
This is what I mean by complexify yourself and others. It’s about making sure that your skills and capabilities are up to the job of dealing with complex and uncertain situations. They need to be equal to the context – complex situations need diverse, agile, collective and creative thinking.
The ebook goes on to suggest practical things to try – based on my experience as part of a team who pioneered practical, experiental and project-based learning (a complex undertaking) with senior executives who were themselves trying to do very complex things.