The Organisational Conversation and Complex Adaptive Systems Theory: Implications for Organisations, Leaders and Managers – Part 3

Are organisations Complex Adaptive Systems?

Some researchers have applied systems theory from the sciences directly to organisation and suggest that organisations are living systems. In describing organisations this way they often draw analogies from the life sciences e.g the behaviour of colonies of ants or flocks of birds. In attempting to simulate this behaviour via computer modelling the notion of Complex Adaptive Systems (CAS) emerged. In a CAS "agents" interacting locally, according to a few pre-programmed rules of interaction, are seen to self-organise and form coherent patterns of behaviour. If organisations are CAS in this sense, then it to would be tempting to advocate that the role of leaders and managers is to impose a few simple rules of interaction for staff and allow them to self-organise their behaviour, rather than seeking to impose detailed order from on high.
However, other researchers, e.g (Stacey, 2001, 2012)argue that for an organisation to truly meet the conditions of a CAS then, as per the process of computer modelling, a set of rules would need to be imposed by someone outside the system boundary i.e. the programmer, and these rules then followed precisely and without exception. These conditions simply do not exist in organisations: Managers and leaders are not external observers and controllers of the system, rather they are part of the system and incapable of fulfilling the role of an "external programmer". In addition, people do not make meaning of, and follow, rules in the same way. Instead their meaning making and subsequent behaviour are contingent on their personal schema and the attendant issues of power, ideology, self interest, emotion and identity. Despite this, Stacey and others point out that CASs provides a useful source domain to inform us as to what actually does go on in organisations, in particular the concepts of sense making, emergence and self-organisation.Organisations are the conversations that happen at a local level
Organisations are social phenomena, being no more, and no less, than dynamic networks of conversations. It is in these conversations that the organisation is created, sustained, re-created and potentially changed. (Stacey, 2001; Streatfield, 2001) All organisations are actually the process of people making sense of what is going on by relating to one another through conversations and deciding what things mean and how they will act. Interdependence, interaction and interpretation are fundamental dynamics of organisations. However, this interconnectedness does not create some imaginary, overarching ?system? ? ?the organisation? ? which decides. acts, competes and co-operates, succeeds and fails, etc on their behalf, : Rather the organisation and the people within it are one and the same thing. The organisation is continually created and/or recreated in these interactions and organisational outcomes emerge from the complex interplay of the conversations that make up everyday organisational life. Rather than being CAS, Stacey and others would argue that organisations are best viewed as Complex Responsive Processes (CRP) with the responsive processes being the meaning making activities of gesture and response (i,e, conversation) that occur in the daily interactions of organisational life.Meaning making and the local conversation
In Complex Responsive Processes people as agents do not respond to strategies, plans, rules and the like. Rather they make meaning of them as they respond to their perceptions, interpretations and evaluations of those strategies, plans and rules (Cavanagh, 2012; Stacey, 2001; Streatfield, 2001). This meaning making is formed, primarily, in their conversations (including conversations with their self) and interactions with others and it is here, in the give-and-take of day-to-day interaction, that people make sense of what?s going on and decide how they are going to act. This is not to say that there is no role for formally stated requirements of purpose and the like in organisations - they are certainly an important input into people?s ongoing sense-making - but to understand that they do not simply unfold over time in a predictable and linear fashion.
The more that people make sense of things in particular ways, the more likely they are to continue to make sense of things in similar ways going forward. This tendency to think and act in line with existing patterns of thought and action becomes taken for granted - ?the way we do things around here?. Although subconscious, it powerfully affects the ways in which people exercise agency in their interactions and the consequent actions and outcomes. It has been suggested that if leaders have the capacity to notice the repetitive themes in conversations and the assumptions, beliefs and perspectives (including their own) holding them in place there then arises the possibility of participating in the conversations in a ?mindful? manner to consciously recognise, and possibly sustain useful patterns and to challenge and potentially disrupt less useful patterns (Stacey, 2011; Cavanagh, 2012).
On the basis of the above it follows that it is not ?the system? that compels people to think and act in particular ways, rather it is the ongoing, self-organising, process of conversation that patterns the way in which meaning is made, evaluated and acted upon thereby creating emerging events and experiences. These patterns create expectancy and security because the patterns of past meaning making and actions channel current meaning making down the familiar ?pathways? of past meaning making and action. However, whilst the balance of probability is heavily biased towards continuity rather than change, there exists in any given interaction the potential for these patterns to shift and new meaning-making and action to occur.Reflexivity - the developmental challenge for leaders and managers
To understand organisations as CRPs it is useful to be familiar concepts such as gesture and response, meaning making and the thematic patterns in conversations (Stacey, 2001).The rationale for so doing is as follows: If organisations are CRPs then managers and leaders are unavoidably involved in the give-and-take of local conversational exchanges through which outcomes emerge. The emergent nature of these outcomes means that they cannot be controlled. However, although they cannot be certain what outcomes will actually emerge, leaders and managers can aspire to act with intent and mindfulness in terms of their own contribution to the dynamic network of interactions. To effectively participate in conversations in this manner requisite micro-skills are certainly desirable e.g. questioning and listening skills (Grant & Cavanagh, 2007). However, in and of themselves these skills will rarely be enough: They must be combined with ?reflexivity?. Reflexivity is the activity of noticing and thinking about the nature of our involvement in our participation with each other as we are interacting (Stacey, 2011). It involves thinking about how we and those involved with us are interacting and this will involve noticing and thinking about our history together and more widely about the history of the wider communities we are part of. In short, it is thinking about how we are thinking.
Reflexivity is not so much a skill as a matter of psychological capacity work by researchers like Kegan (Kegan, 1979)and Garvey-Berger (Garvey Berger, 2012) strongly suggests that less than 40% of those currently in leadership roles may not have the psychological capacity to bring the requisite intent and mindfulness to their local conversations. Lack of reflexivity may possibly account for consistently low levels of employee engagement in Australia. In recent times many organisations have aspired to the holy grail of high employee engagement with initiatives like Employee Assistance Programs, Health and Wellness Programs and the like. A CRP approach would argue that engagement is built, sustained and lost in conversations at the local level: How leaders participate in these conversations is critical and the oft reported levels of disengagement in Australia of 70% or greater (Gallup, 2009; Smith, 2009) could be indicating how poorly this is being done. It often said that employees leave their managers, not the organisation: It might be better said that employees leave the conversations they are, or are not having with their managers.If the above holds true then it is hard to see how organisations could over-invest in ?scaffolding? leaders and managers in developing their capacity to co-create more adaptive conversations in the workplace. However, the commitment of organisations to better ?processes? , templates, programs etc which are handed down ?from on high? as organisations seek the ?one right way? of doing things that guarantees success remains strong. It is reinforced by many consultants that continue to sell products that assume universal applicability, linearity and predictability in their implementation and which, by and large, continually fail to deliver the hoped for results on a sustainable basis.References
Cavanagh, M. (2012). The coaching engagement in the 21st century: New paradigms for complex times. The University of Sydney. Sydney.
Gallup. (2009). The Gallup Q12 - Employee Engagement Poll - 2008 Results.
Garvey Berger, J. (2012). Changing on the Job. Stanford, CA: Stanford Business Books.
Grant, A. M., & Cavanagh, M. J. (2007). The Goal-Focused Coaching Skills Questionnaire: Preliminary findings. Social Behavior and Personality, 35(6), 751-760.
Kegan, R. G. (1979). The evolving self: A process conception for ego psychology. The Counseling Psychologist, 8(2), 5-34.
Smith, F. (2009). Workers are as disengaged as ever. Australian Financial Review.
Stacey, R. D. (2001). Complex Responsive processes in organisations: learning and knowledge creation. London: Routledge.
Stacey, R. D. (2012). Tools and Techniques of Leadership and Management: Meeting the challenge of complexity. Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge.
Streatfield, P. (2001). The Paradox of Control in Organisations. London: Routledge.

1Comment
  • Kez
    Posted at 12:01h, 25 February

    Hi Kevin,
    I really enjoyed reading your work on CAS.

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