The organisational conversation and complex adaptive systems theory: Implications for organisations, leaders and managers

Welcome to the first of a series of articles on conversations in organisations. These will be my attempt to discuss how complex adaptive systems (CAS) theory might inform our understanding of organisations. I am not an expert in this area but I find it intriguing. Perhaps it is because so much emphasis is placed by the CAS approach on the role of organisational conversation and meaning making and that as a coach I am naturally inclined to an interest in conversations and the meaning that people make in their conversations!

In recent times times there has been an attempt to understand organisational behaviour from the perspective of Complex Adaptive Systems (CAS) theory (Stacey, 2001, 2011; Streatfield, 2001; Obolensky 20110). Advocates of a CAS approach contend that it offers better insights into organisations and the requisite leadership skills required to function in them than other contemporary approaches. In attempting to better understand how organisations function and how leaders and managers might more effectively work within them, CAS researchers have focused on the conversations that happen at all levels of organisations (Stacey, 2001, 2011; Obolensky, 2011; Streatfield, 2001).

What is conversation?

A CAS perspective views conversation as a process of gesture and response (Stacey, 2001; Streatfield, 2001): A very simple explanation of this might be as follows: I make a gesture in the form of speaking words to which I attach a meaning. You then respond in a manner that either confirms that meaning or indicates that you have made a different meaning of my gesture (words). Implicit in this description of conversation is that there a multiple conversations occurring: In making a gesture to you I am also making a gesture to myself and confirming or challenging the meaning of the gesture - as are you. In short, whist I am participating in meaning making with you via the gesture and response process of conversation, I am also participating in meaning making with myself via the ?internal? conversation I am having - which again follows the pattern of gesture and response. From this perspective both individual identity and organisational identity are continually created in conversations.

Where do conversations occur?: A CAS approach views conversations as occurring at a local level within an organisation: The CEO may sometimes ?talk? to the whole organisation via a broadcast, email or newsletter (gestures). However, the meaning of the CEO?s gestures are made at a local level in conversations that workers have with themselves and their colleagues in their various departments etc. In addition, the majority of the CEO?s conversations (and subsequent meaning making) occur locally - with their board, key stakeholders and direct reports.? This process is repeated throughout the organisation,, with all meaning making occurring at a local level. CAS also contends that the patterns and themes of these conversations are repeated at all levels of the organisation e.g. If the conversations at board level are repetitive, distrustful and stagnant then this will be reflected in conversations at all levels of the organisation. However, this does not imply that the board conversations alone have created the organisation?s conversational pattern, but rather reflects a concept known a ?fractals?. Fractals are repeating patterns that form a larger pattern or structure. For example, a snowflake is made from the same repeating pattern of a triangle? - even though its final shape may not resemble anything like a triangle. Similarly, CAS would argue that the structure of conversation in an organisation is the cumulative result of repeating ?triangles? of conversations at all levels of the organisation.

Conversations and innovation: Conversations are always potentially repetitive or transformative in that they can either repeat the patterns and meaning making of previous conversations or create new ways of making meaning. New meaning making becomes possible when a gesture does not elicit the expected response. This creates a sense of tension (often called anxiety) and how this tension is engaged with determines whether the conversation will be repetitive or transformative. If the tension is engaged with, and the parties in the conversation try to understand why the difference in meaning making has arisen and to explore what perspectives and assumptions are informing the different meaning makings, then there is the potential for new meaning making to arise. A very (very!) simple analogy might be as follows:

I make a gesture of ?red? in describing the colour of an object and you say ?blue? and by holding the tension that arises from the difference in meaning making and engaging in trying to see how each other is making meaning and what assumptions and perspective are informing our meaning making we might end up with the new meaning making of ?purple?

However, this is not an easy process for those involved as it implies the process of misunderstanding, which is usually experienced by individuals as frustrating and potentially distressing (although it can also be experienced as exciting and stimulating). Often, the pressure to relieve the frustration/stress can lead to either, or both, parties attempting to close down the conversation. This might take the form of argument/debate in which one way of making meaning ?wins?, or of compromise where a diluted form of both meaning makings is accepted. This may be effective in removing the tension but does not create any new understanding or meaning making.

Conversations and identity: By their very nature transformative conversations implicitly threaten identity: If a group of people have spent the last five years thinking and talking in terms of their organisation in a particular way, their individual and collective identities will be inevitably tied up with that way of making meaning. Consequently, conversations which hold the potential for transformation also contain an implicit threat to individual and group identity and this creates tension (or anxiety): If we have spent decades publishing books and the internet is more than just a better way to distribute them then what kind of organisation will we become and who will be in that organisation? Our instinctive manner of dealing with the anxiety generated by the threat to our identity is to defend ourselves against it by denial, repression or looking for disconfirming evidence. In this way anxiety is dealt with by closing down the conversation so enabling the patterns of past conversations to be repeated: The anxiety (tension) has gone - but so has the opportunity for transformation and new understanding.

Conversations and power relations: Similar to threats to identity, transformative conversations also potentially threaten existing power relations: If we are discussing the potential restructuring of our marketing department to better work with the growing use of the internet then how does that affect me as Marketing Manager? If I no longer have direct reports where does that leave me in the hierarchy? What will I be excluded from that I am now included in? What will be new accountabilities? Conversations that threaten current power relations will inevitable provoke both conscious and unconscious anxiety and consequent moves (again, both conscious and unconscious) to close them down.

Implications for leaders and managers: Organisational conversation from a CAS perspective then can be seen as a process that is always potentially transformative and creative of new knowledge and understanding. In its diversity of meaning making through gesture and response it carries within it a paradox of fluid spontaneity, liveliness and excitement along with anxiety inducing threats to identity and threats to current ways of power relations and making meaning. If leaders and managers are to make sense of this conversational process and operate as effectively as possible within it then it is implicit that they are aware of, and have the capacity to attend to, all of these aspects.

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