#5 Conversation in complexity: to access the multiple perspectives required to grasp the system


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If the world’s largest cooperative scientific program, the CERN accelerator, tells us anything, it is that the dominant paradigm of scientific thought has resulted in us most valuing the direction of thought from the micro to the macro: from our sense that the particles that result from our analytic activity are the most sure things. Feeling that we have found certainty from the bits, we move on to the whole, and that is how we have sought our explanations.

The reverse flow – the macro informing the micro – has been diminished – as a capability, and in societies value. In education, the disciplines that work in wholes, art and poetry, have been treated as entertainments, not serious knowledge enterprises.

Cars are complicated. Not complex.

But in Complexity the whole is not the sum of the parts. Emergent properties are not arrived at by aggregating parts, nor understood by decomposing into parts. So what are we to make of our preference for parts over wholes? In complexity, studies of natural and human systems are explained by both kinds of analysis – micro (or analysis of the parts) and macro (or holistic analysis).

“Interventions are seen to be context dependent – we cannot explain the micro functioning without understanding the macro context. The health of a community or organization impacts the well-being of the individuals within them. Complexity provides us with the opportunity to look at problems with multiple perspectives, studying the micro and macro issues and understanding how they are interdependent.” (1)

So we must look at the macro, the whole. But in complexity this is not like looking at the “whole” of a car that comes off an assembly line. An intriguing feature that emerges in complex systems is in a sense obvious, but it is worth a second look. It is obvious that if something is complex, by definition we can’t reduce it to single dimensions. (If we could it wouldn’t be complex, merely complicated, like the car.) Indeed, we can only ever see a part of a complex system, based on where we stand as observers.

a) It is therefore smart to relinquish the urge to find a single reductionist frame, which would necessitate us missing key information – and instead become deliberate (and eventually skilled) in viewing complex systems through multiple perspectives.

b) Each perspective will be all the more robust and useful if we harness it to the fuzziness of language, to connotations, not denotations. For example, if we try to look at complex systems via rich metaphorical aspects: see a new business as a kingdom, a farm, or a garden, not as a choice between a hierarchy or a matrix.

Perspectivalism- accessed in conversation – becomes foundational, an imperative, because of this phenomenon.

“Complex adaptive systems, because they cannot be accurately predicted, can give rise to unintended consequences from planned interventions. Unintended consequences are often negative consequences. They can never be eliminated but through a strategic approach, involving multiple perspectives and extrapolation of time, they can be reduced.”(2)


It occurred to me while thinking about this “obvious” (but alien to us) need for perspectivalism that there was another whole issue between grasping complex systems and the role of perspectives.

The laws of physics are constant everywhere, but perceptions of what is objective, and measurements of what is “real” are specific to each observer.

• You observe that are sitting still in a train going forward

• An observer on the train looking at you sees you sitting still

• An observer on the train looking past you out the window sees you moving forward

• An observer on the platform sees you going forward

• An observer on a train moving faster than you in the same direction may see you going backwards, and then as their train slows, see you start to go forwards and overtake them.

If we take this last frame from physics and apply it to complexity, we get an insight as to why complexity theory is so hard to define. It is because it is, in its nature, a bunch of observer perspectives. This is generally true of human cognition about systems: “A system is a way of looking at the world” (4) But it reaches a crescendo in the context of complexity theory.

The frequently referenced features of complex systems – sensitivity to initial conditions, strange attractors, self-similarity or fractals, self-organisation, emergence at the edge of chaos, and the formation of fitness landscapes – are not so much invariant features of every complex environment, as features that emerge repeatedly. When we use them as windows on complex contexts, some show these features prominently, even archetypally, while others are less evident.

“Where to draw a boundary around the system depends on the questions we want to ask” (5)

Is this a problem? A source of embarrassment? In the context of talking about using different kinds of system modelling, Michael C Jackson observes:

”a diversity of approaches, therefore, heralds not a crisis but increased competence in a variety of problem contexts.”(6)

What Jackson calls pluralism, my hermeneutics Prof preferred to call “multi-perspectivalism” – to acknowledge complexity that transcends our finitude, and deliberately develop a competency to circle around messes using different perspectives: and thus continue as agents in a world full of messes.


Multiple perspectives are not the accustomed way of thinking for managers. Management has chased the ideal of science, and the manager has chased the role of the scientist – one who pursues a single perspective as an objective observer, one who “gets to the bottom of things”, unearths the truth, comes to final conclusions. It is amazing that such a human discipline as management could have succeeded in suppressing the truth that different stakeholders have utterly diverse opinions about even the enterprise context they are involved with!

Menger recommended a “law against miserliness”: “… the methodological tool that is needed is not a razor but a prism resolving conceptual medleys into the spectra of their meanings…“(7)

So off you go. Go find some other people’s perspectives on your situation. But don’t forget to consider that conversation itself might be a perspective you could use!

(1) Begun, J. W., Zimmerman, B., Dooley, K. Health Care Organizations as Complex Adaptive Systems 2003

(2) Body, J. Design facilitation as an emerging Design skill: A Practical Approach www.dab.uts.edu.au/research/conferences/…/DTRS8-Body.pdf

(3) Drawings from http://www.flickr.com/photos/mikekline/. Thanks Mike

(4) Gerald M Weinberg Introduction to general systems thinking

(5) Donella Meadows, Thinking in systems

(6) Systems thinking: Creative holism for managers p280

(7) Menger, K. (1961) A counterpart of Occam’s Razor in Pure and Applied Mathematics Ontological Uses, Synthese, 13(4)

David Jones

Changing the ways people talk to get work done.

New work? New conversation! Change Conversation.

#6 Conversation in complexity: to clarify and cultivate our values that will bound our system activity

Systems that are capable of adapting to complexity are naturally drawn to attractors. Think of putting a marble in a salad bowl. It will find a resting place in the bottom of the bowl – the space it is attracted to.

In Newtonian science, an attractor can be the resting point for a pendulum. Unlike traditional attractors in Newtonian science which are a fixed point or repeated rhythm (1), the attractors for a Complex Adaptive System may be “strange”. That is, they may have an overall shape and boundaries but one cannot predict exactly how or where the shape will form next. The attractor is a pattern or area that draws the energy of the system to it. It is a boundary of behaviour for the system. The system will operate within this boundary, but at a local level – we cannot predict where the system will be within this overall attractor. (2)

In human activity systems, values are critical as attractors. And conversations about what we value, such as the conversations around major hazards in an unsafe workplace, are an essential way of shaping systemic behaviours in the face of complexity.

Perhaps then we can understand how a new CEO can have such an effect on a system – creating a new centre of gravity in the enterprise by what is said – sometimes even before they arrive in the job. “A CAS may be sensitive to certain small changes in initial conditions. An apparently trivial difference in the beginning state of the system may result in enormously different outcomes. This phenomenon is sometimes called the butterfly effect…However, this sensitivity has to do with the exact path that the complex system follows into the future, rather than its general pattern.(3)

This, then, is why people can write like this about values:

“An authentic mission isn’t a bronze plaque in the office lobby; it’s an internal document. There is no harm if suppliers and customers see it. But its message is for the people who come into work every day. Typically, lobby plaques proclaim an organisation’s good intentions, the values by which it wishes to live. But an authentic mission… (identifies) hidden, positive root values that the organisation does live by. These “keel of boat” values exist beneath the surface. Yet, they set a company’s course. When an authentic mission captures these values, it captures a company’s soul.”(4)

Values turn out to have surprising power in surprising contexts – even in something once thought to be so “objective” and value free as science itself:

“Kuhn says that the criteria of choice between theories… “function not as rules, which determined choice, but as values, which influence it” (page 331). Most of his critics would agree even to this…” (5) Against this backdrop, we could understand the work of normal science as a set of conversations where “iteration will fill out the attractor in more and more detail.” (6). Note this– even science has its system activity defined by values.

For Stacey (Complexity and Group Processes), values are not just deep, but nonetheless “incidental”, patterns. They are in fact the source of organisational structure. In response to the question, “What is the social structure of purposeful enterprise?” Stacey would reply: “social structure is shared, repetitive and enduring values, beliefs, traditions, habits, routines and procedures. These are all social acts of a particular kind. They are couplings of gesture and response of a predictable highly repetitive kind. They do not exist in any meaningful way in a store anywhere but, rather, they are continually reproduced in the interaction between people.” (7)

For some theorists , the idea of values as strange attractors is an immense relief, because they haven’t known what to do with such subjective, fluffy things. Paradoxically, it means values become the determining master, instead of the dispensable servant. “The re-description of values as the strange attractors of certain complex systems, especially human ones, rather neatly solves many of the problems thinkers in various disciplines have had in identifying the nature of values–problems so severe that many have denied the existence of values altogether.” (8)

Turner goes on to raise the stakes even higher: “Meaning itself can be redefined in terms of the relationship of strange attractors to the physical processes they describe. Any nonlinear dynamical system, when triggered by a stimulus, will generate a sequence of unpredictable events, but those events will nevertheless be limited to their attractor, and further iteration will fill out the attractor in more and more detail. “ “Meaning itself” is my emphasis.

So conversation between ourselves to progress in the face of complexity truns out to rely on us clarifying and stating our values in a way that is anything but peripheral. It is not lip service, though it may be treated as such. Understanding and expressing our values has a critical role in complex situations – it creates a boundary to relevance.

This leads to some further interesting possibilities for reflections about the relationship between conversation and culture….

“Organisation culture is the emergent result of the continuing negotiations about values, meanings and proprieties between the members of that organisation and with its environment.

In other words, culture is the result of all the daily conversations and negotiations between the members of an organisation. They are continually agreeing (sometimes explicitly, usually tacitly) about the ‘proper’ way to do things and how to make meanings about the events of the world around them. If you want to change a culture you have to change all these conversations—or at least the majority of them. And changing conversations is not the focus of most change programmes, which tend to concentrate on organisational structures or reward systems or other large-scale interventions.” (9)

Implies a definite need to Change Conversation capability in our talk about values…

(1) see here for a beauty – watch for the (eventually) repeated pattern

(2) Health Care Organizations as Complex Adaptive SystemsJames W. Begun; Brenda Zimmerman; and Kevin Dooley. June 15, 2002.

(3) Begun, Zimmerman and Dooley 2003

(4) Linking purpose and people, Alan Cox, Training and development March 1996 p67-68

(5) Rorty, Richard 1979 Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature Princeton University Press p327

(6) Values and Strange AttractorsFrederick Turner, 10/7/01 [reprinted from the German, from Lettre International] ttp://www.cosmoetica.com/B21-FT1.htm

(7) Stacey Complexity and Group Processes 2003 p65

(8) Values and Strange AttractorsFrederick Turner

(9) Seel, R. (2006) ‘Emergence in Organisations’. Online. Available HTTP: <http://www.new-paradigm.co.uk/emergence-human.htm> (accessed August 2013).

David Jones

Changing the ways people talk to get work done.

New work? New conversation! Change Conversation.

#4 Conversation in complexity: to harness the power of fuzziness in language

Conversation is full of fuzziness that is intolerable in technical tools, yet functions with high efficiency and effectiveness.

A comment thrown over the shoulder at 10am: “I’ll meet you and the rest later on at the usual place” will likely result in a completely satisfactory coordination of 5 people – Bill, Stan, Mike, Peter and Col, all arriving with in about 5-10 minutes of each other, in the beer Garden of the Whistler’s Arms. And if it’s raining, just inside on the right….

This amazing everyday power that we all hold in our speaking needs to be consciously harnessed as we face complexity. Why would we not want to understand how to make such an amazing thing work for us when we face the indeterminate and messy state of the world? We will of course retain all this tacit brilliance, but we will add the capacity to know when to explicitly value this capability and utilise its features so it can do its work. For example, we need to know when to step away from the search to answer “What is X?”, and the drive to technical precision in our answers.

We would also need to understand that our obsession with quantification and measurement will also put a wedge between us and this remarkable capability.

“Grown-ups love figures. When you tell them that you have made a new friend, they never ask you any questions about essential matters. They never say to you “What does his voice sound like? What games does he love best? Does he collect butterflies?” Instead they demand “How old is he? How many brothers has he? How much does he weigh? How much money does his father make?” Only from these figures do they think they have learned anything about him."(1)

We have to switch from connotation to denotation in order to measure – hence we are inherently restricted to a subset of the conversational habitats we need to use to be creative and adaptive. So the drive to measure will in and of itself reduce our options for what we regard as useful or valid in our approach to complex systems. This may be “obvious”, but it gives an insight into the dynamics of conversational behaviours.

"As complexity increases, precision and meaningfulness become incompatible. While precision thrives on stable (fixed) meanings, the fuzzy meanings are unstable – they can simultaneously relate to several attractors and express specific types of meaning-generating crises. Instability of the fuzzy meanings make them flexible for interpretation and open for evolution and transformation. And these are precious qualities necessary for understanding social complexity.“(2)

(1) Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, The Little Prince

(2) Vladimir Dimitrov, Strange Attractors of Meaning, 2000

David Jones

Changing the ways people talk to get work done.

New work? New conversation! Change Conversation.

#3 Conversation in complexity: to activate and apply our capacity for adaptive expertise

All the numbers from the pathology lab are good, the paperwork is complete, and…. the patient is dead.

A US doctor invented a word for this sad phenomenon in health care: “the patient is “euboxic””.

“Eu-” meaning good, as in euphoria and eulogy; “boxic” referring to all the little tick boxes neatly filled in (and no doubt a blackly humorous allusion to the coffin shortly in order.

The truth is that human diagnosis is a complex task, and it can’t be reduced to algorithms in pathology laboratories, even though they make a vital contribution to the task. Pathology testing is a place for routine expertise. Diagnosis is a task for adaptive expertise.

Adaptive expertise is essential in working with complexity. Routine expertise works in contexts where there are stable specifications for the work. Adaptive expertise is required when the problem space has moved “upstream” – it comes before the specifications could even be written. It comes when even the requirements themselves are changing.

“Hatano and Inagaki (1986) distinguish between routine-expertise and adaptive expertise. Routine expertise is mainly developed by constant and repeating requirements whereas adaptive expertise develops especially in the context of changing requirements. According to that differentiation, routine expertise is valuable in order to implement context-specific strategies whereas adaptive expertise represents meta-strategies which transfer knowledge to new situations or generate new knowledge. As a consequence, both types of experience work under different conditions but are equally important.” (1)

Sadly, despite the recognised shift to complexity in human activity systems, too much work is done by those whose only experience is within the conversation and cognition patterns of routine expertise. As a consequence, all over human enterprises, we have euboxic systems: The reports are good, the boxes are ticked, but the system is completely incapable of delivering outcomes.(2)

Facing complexity drives our thinking “upstream”, insisting that thought is given, and shown to be given, to the front end thinking processes that are essential to viable and sustainable systems, and requiring conversational capabilities for competence in those spaces.

McMorland describes adaptive expertise in the context of senior management (where we might expect to find it routinely, but often don’t).

“Levels 4 (General Managers)and 5 (VP’s, CEO’s) are responsible for Adding Value for the Future. Level 4, which is typical of senior executive level in medium to large businesses, requires the holding together of business in the present whilst at the same time building for the future…Level 4 is the most problematic level of work…as it signals a shift away from central operational concerns (maintaining business as is) to managing both continuity and change, including the devising of new means to achieve new ends and letting go of means and ends that no longer serve potential business. When managers are promoted from operational practice to strategic development they need to be made aware of the different complexities Level 4 entails and the inherent tensions of managing continuity and change. CEO’s who complain that their senior staff are not talking a sufficient “whole of business” perspective have to hold themselves responsible for tasking their executives appropriately.” (3)

With high speed change, very plastic organisation arrangements (value chains), and growing complexity, the only constant will become that we know how to navigate conversation spaces – an adaptive competence. Enterprise velocity x complexity x plasticity demand growth in knowledge worker intelligence, span and absorptive capacity. There is a deeper issue – not just tasking, but equipping. Managers’ development to this point has been focused on performance in the business as it is. They need that part of them exercised that can hold both the now and the not yet (or as Wheelwright (1982, 19) calls them, the “what just was” and the “what is just about to be”)(4).

But adaptive capability is no longer sufficient if confined to senior personnel. Bringing conversation into our explicit capability set unlocks growth in adaptive expertise. Garry Hamel is one who has seen that this kind of expertise is not the exclusive province of senior management. Of course, failure there is often acute and catastrophic, while at the levels of the organisation closer to the customer, the disease of excessive specialism is more chronic. It is simply not functional to face the challenges of constant change if your workforce can only handle the conversations of specialism – of learned routines, settled language and fixed meanings.The modern organisation is a tribute to the extensive, systemic enculturation of ineffective ways of being. In “The Future of Management”, Garry Hamel points out that the DNA of management is based on how to control farmhands to do routine work – and it has succeeded at that. The goal was to make them into semi-automatons. In the context of manual work 100 years ago, nothing was exponential – now most things are. Change has changed. Change is as fast as change itself.

Change is taking place so fast and so much that the only thing that can keep up – quite literally – is how we talk together. Because it is in our talking together that we take ideas and possibilities, threats and challenges from the world and make them our own. We fuse the already and the not yet into capability for living well.

(1) Badke Schaub, Petra Strategies of experts in engineering design: between innovation and routine behaviour Journal of Design Research (JDR) Volume 4 – Issue 2 – 2004

(2) If you think this is a bit strong, read Young, Raymond, O’Connor, Paul & Poon, Simon Governance Of Programmes And Portfolios For Strategic Success – Implications From A Study Of The State Of Victoria Thirtieth International Conference on Information Systems, Phoenix 2009 1, AND/OR Blake Dawson Scope for Improvement 2008: A Report on Scoping Practices in Australian construction and infrastructure projects Blake Dawson 2008

(3) Judith McMorland Are you big enough for your job? Is your job big enough for you? Exploring Levels of Work in organisations University of Auckland Business Review Spring 2005 75-83 Emphasis mine The levels she refers to are from a model by Elliot Jaques made popular by Gillian Stamp, advanced by Luc Hoebeke, and used throughout organisations such as the Commonwealth Bank, BHP and Rio Tinto.

(4) Wheelwright, P. (1982/1968). The burning fountain: A study in the language of symbolism. Gloucester: Peter Smith.

David Jones

Changing the ways people talk to get work done.

New work? New conversation! Change Conversation.

#2 Conversation in complexity: to bring the “organisation” into being


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So here’s today’s question: If conversation constructs the organisation, and innovation is key to survival, can you afford not to take responsibility for the conversational habits that make up your enterprise?

One of the most useful tricks of the human mind is to take things for granted. It is very restful to treat sitting and watching television or sitting in a car on a freeway, or sitting 10,000 feet in the air as normal. But none of these things had been experienced by any human 100 years ago. Now at any point in time there are a million humans in the air!

How do we do such things?

By conversation. By the private conversations in our minds we call thinking. And by the conversations in which we coordinate our behaviours to collectively conceive, design, develop and deliver our built reality.

As with the taking for granted of flying, we take for granted the relationship arrangements

· the pooling of effort

· the subordinating of ourselves to others and to purposes

· the trading of money and goods for labour

that make up organisations.

But those relationship arrangements were only ever made in language – they only ever came to be because of people talking. Organisations themselves only ever eventuate because of conversation, and are only perpetuated and maintained by conversation. That means we are making the places we work – and that means we can re-make them as places that are more fit for their environment.

Organisations arise through conversation:

1. Because as human activity systems they cannot fail to reflect the way language works

2. By the explicit construction of new entities through purposeful talk

3. By the everydayness of talk being the way we get things done

The first one is the most foundational, but also as you might expect, the most technical to explain. So instead of my readers bailing out now, what if I deal with these in reverse order? Perhaps the mood of a thrilling countdown will keep you till the end!

#3: Organisations arise through conversation just because talk is the way we get things done

Its 20 years now since Alan Webber wrote in HBR: “Conversations are the way workers discover what they know, share it with their colleagues, and in the process create new knowledge for the organization. In the new economy, conversations are the most important form of work … so much so that the conversation is the organization.” (1) And if this was the only reason, it’s enough to warrant leaders paying far more attention to what goes on in language.

(2), (3)

#2: Organisations arise through conversation by the explicit construction of new entities through purposeful talk

The phenomenon of “organisation” in economically viable human activity systems – of being in a state of recognisable coherence in the face of complexity , is only ever a product of conversation.

As radical as it sounds in a world of mega-structures and mass computerisation, what my friend Anne Deane said back in about 1995 is still true: “All there is, is people and conversations.” In more technical terms,

Social structure is shared, repetitive and enduring values, beliefs, traditions, habits, routines and procedures. These are all social acts of a particular kind. They are couplings of gesture and response of a predictable highly repetitive kind. They do not exist in any meaningful way in a store anywhere but, rather, they are continually reproduced in the interaction between people.” (4)

This is a constant process in history. Where you head out the door to “work” in the morning, how long has your role existed? Your kind of job? Your kind of firm? Your kind of industry? Well, all those ways of organising had to be invented.

Right now, complex environments are seeing new forms of organisation arise. Take the organisational structures for “collective impact”, and the new organisational forms such as the “backbone organisation”. The term “collective impact” only took on currency in the public arena with the November 22, 2010 publication of a post bearing that title by John Kania, and Mark Kramer in the Stanford Social Innovation Review (5), and as of today, it still “only” has 257,000 references in Google. Yet the headlines of one of Kania & Kramers subsequent posts (Jan 21 2013) make the case: “Embracing Emergence: How Collective Impact Addresses Complexity. Collective impact is upending conventional wisdom on how we achieve social progress.”

And of course the technology that allows us to connect in a bewildering array of networked arrangements in so-called “social media” is also wall-to-wall conversation, however much we tend to see the shiny widgets and apps that conduct our presence. “What is transpiring is momentous, nothing less than the planet wiring itself a new nervous system. If your organization is not linked into this nervous system, you will be hard pressed to participate in the planet’s future. To be more specific, amidst the texting and Twittering and Facebooking of a generation of digital natives, the fundamentals of next-generation communication and collaboration are being worked out.”(6)

#3: Organisations arise through conversation just because as human activity systems they cannot fail to reflect the way language works

People talking together is what frames, forms and maintains the conventions and structures that support relationships. Conversational relationships are the only source of possibility for human meaning making (7)

Karl Weick observes: “The image of sensemaking as activity that talks events and organizations into existence suggests that patterns of organizing are located in the actions and conversations that occur on behalf of the presumed organization and in the texts of those activities that are preserved in social structures.” (8)

Viewed from this perspective, the apparent solidity of social phenomena such as ‘the organization’ derives from the stabilizing effects of generic discursive processes rather than from the presence of independently existing concrete entities. In other words, phrases such as ‘the organization’ do not refer to an extra-linguistic reality. Instead they are conceptualized abstractions to which it has become habitual for us to refer as independently existing ‘things’. ‘Organizational Discourse’, therefore, must be understood, … in its wider ontological sense as the bringing into existence of an ‘organized’ or stabilized state.”(9)

OK, you can leave now if you must. I’ve made the case. You want to be a credible leader in a complex world, you better have a language about language.

But if you want to hold your nose and jump, here is the next layer down of theory about the way organisations are formed by conversation. It comes from the world of sociology. And I’ll let Ralph Stacey do the talking, a helicopter review of George Herbert Mead’s arguments about thinking and language, taken up to address complexity in organisations

“Mead said that humans are fundamentally role-playing animals, by which he meant that rudimentary forms of thinking take the form of private role-playing, that is, gestures made by a body to itself, calling forth responses in itself. It is this private role-play that constitutes mind. Social relationships are, therefore, gestures made by bodies to other bodies and mind is the gesturing and responding of a body to itself. The process is the same in both cases, namely a “conversation of gestures” in significant symbols, that is, the body rhythms of feelings, and they both proceed at the same time.

Mead then argued that the gesture which is particularly useful in calling forth the same attitude in oneself as in the other is the vocal gesture….The development of more sophisticated patterns of vocal gesturing, that is, of the language form of significant symbols, is thus of major importance in the development of consciousness and of sophisticated forms of society. Mind and society emerge together in the medium of language, where mind is private, silent conversation and social is public, vocal conversation.” (10)

“Eventually, individuals develop the capacity to take the attitude of the whole group, or what Mead calls the game. In other words, creatures have now evolved who are capable of taking the social attitude to their actions as they gesture and respond. The result is much more sophisticated processes of cooperative interaction…. There is now mindful, social behaviour with increasingly sophisticated meaning and an increasing capacity to use tools more and more effectively to transform the context within which the interacting creatures live.”(11)

“Throughout this explanation, human society is emerging simultaneously with human minds, including selves. Mead consistently argued that one is not more fundamental than the other; that one could not exist without the other. The social, in human terms, is a highly sophisticated process of cooperative interaction between people in the medium of symbols in order to undertake joint action. Such sophisticated interaction could not take place without self-conscious minds but neither could those self-conscious minds exist without that sophisticated form of cooperation. In other words there could be no private role-play, including silent conversation, by a body with itself, if there was no public interaction of the same form. Mind/self and society are all logically equivalent processes of a conversational kind. Social interaction is a public conversation of gestures, particularly gestures of a vocal kind, while mind is a conversation of gestures between “I”, “me”, “other” and “group” in a silent, private role-play of public, social interaction.” (12)

What Mead presents in his theory of symbolic interactionism is complex, nonlinear, iterative processes of communicative interaction between people in which mind, self, and society all emerge simultaneously in the living present. Elias’ theory of process sociology presents processes of power relating in which social structures (habits, routines, beliefs) emerge at the same time as personality structures (ways of experiencing ourselves). Both Mead and Elias are concerned with local interaction in the present in which widespread, global patterns emerge as social and personality structures, as identity and difference, as human “habitus”. I have been pointing to how the complexity sciences model complex adaptive systems as generalised, abstract interactions that demonstrate the possibility and plausibility of the theories that Mead and Elias present” (13)

Are you perpetuating old conversation forms as though they are not something you are responsible for?

(1) What’s so new about the new economy? HBR 1993

(2) Flores quoted in Brown, J. and D. Isaacs Conversation as a Core business Practice,

(3) Cartoon by Michael Leunig

(4) Stacey R. D.,2003 Complexity and Group Processes: A Radically Social Understanding of Individuals Routledge, p65

(5) “Social Impact” Winter 2011. p. 36-41.

(6) Moore, Geoffrey – White Paper – “Systems of Engagement and The Future of Enterprise IT, A Sea Change in Enterprise IT”, http://www.aiim.org/~/media/Files/AIIM%20White%20Papers/Systems-of-Engagement.pdf

(7) The extensive literature around feral children and “the forbidden experiment” bears this out. Let alone create, we cannot live without language. To do language is to be human. In the 13th century, Emperor Frederick II of Germany experimented to see how children would develop without being exposed to language. He theorized that children would either develop the ability to speak Hebrew (the language which he thought was the original language of mankind) or to speak the parents’ language. Infants were fostered without having a word spoken to them – all the children he used in the experiment died. In a similar vein, the 16th century Mogul emperor Akbar experimented with infants to see if they would develop a “natural” religious faith without being in contact with people – the children grew up quasi-deaf and mute for life.

(8) Weick, Karl E. ; Sutcliffe, Kathleen M. ; Obstfeld, David Organizing and the process of sensemaking Organization Science, July-August, 2005, Vol.16(4), p.409

(9) Robert Chia Discourse Analysis as Organizational Analysis Organization: a debate on discourse 7(3): 513–518 2000

(10)Stacey 2003 p62

(11)Stacey 2003 p63. Eventually, these tools take the form of artefacts that in turn pattern our own behaviours, as described by Francis Cooren: Cooren, F. 2000 The Organising Property of Communication (Amsterdam, John Benjamins)

(12)Stacey 2003 p 63, 64

(13)Stacey 2003 66. This is Stacey’s critical contribution – the theory of complex responsive processes of relating that lead to organisations. As Stacey goes on to say ”with regard to human action, the useful concept is process rather than system.”

David Jones

Changing the ways people talk to get work done.

New work? New conversation! Change Conversation.

#1 Conversation in complexity: to allow for the inevitable feature of emergence


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First – what do we mean by complex?

Well, you have to be amused that defining complexity turns out to be, well, complex….

“Complexity has turned out to be very difficult to define. The dozens of definitions that have been offered all fall short in one respect or another, classifying something as complex which we intuitively would see as simple, or denying an obviously complex phenomenon the label of complexity.“ (1)

In such circumstances, it often turns out to be best to go with our intuitions of what we mean, and allow instances and illustrations to clarify our meaning. It’s a method that works for all sorts of important ideas, like what it means to love, or be a dad, or….

Perhaps the one thing that is worth saying is that complex is more than just complicated. Modern cars are complicated – they have many thousands of components, but no mysteries. The neurobiology of car drivers is complex – perhaps fewer different kinds of working parts, but deep mysteries about how they combine to produce the “simplest” of phenomenon like recognising your turn off…

And then what do we mean by emergence?

Economist Jeffrey Goldstein defined emergence as: “the arising of novel and coherent structures, patterns and properties during the process of self-organization in complex systems”. That’s a bit tricky, because it manages to use the terms emergence, complex, and self-organisation all in the same knot.

When the actions of entities that are un-coordinated by any explicit mechanism result in a “higher” level order of behaviour arising, this is known as self-organization or “emergence”. Activity systems that appear disordered at one level, such as ice crystallisation (and crowds and economies) may yet exhibit ordered behaviour, such as snowflakes (and fads and markets). (2) This is also a feature of human conversation. We string together bits called words using some simple rules (like “add-verby things go with verby things”) and complex things emerge that make or break someone’s day, like saying “Will you marry me?”

A key thing to note is that in environments of complexity, emergence is inexorable (it happens relentlessly whether we want it to or not), but not necessarily desirable.

Is a big wave a complex phenomenon with emergent features?(3) No doubt that could start an argument. But what there is no doubt about is that the place to be as it unfolds is riding it, not under it… This is the capability provided by conversation in emergent environments.

So let’s take it as given that human enterprises

a) are in many cases becoming more and more complex, due to technological innovation, increasing variety in products and services, sophistication of customer demands, the span (number of countries) a business operates, and globalisation

b) that therefore they will exhibit this weird and (not necessarily) wonderful phenomenon of emergence.

For conversation to be any use to us in such a world, we have to be able to propose a mechanism for conversation to have an effect.

It turns out that it does.

“Complex adaptive human systems are created through social interaction, i.e., discourse. Meaningful discourse is the result of social interdependence and requires the coordinated actions among members of the organizational system (Gergen, 1994; Pearce & Littlejohn, 1997). At the most basic level, discourse is “what is said and listened to” between and among people (Berger & Luckmann, 1966). Described more fully, discourse is a complex information-rich mix of stimuli that includes not only what is spoken, but also the full, conversational elements of behaviours, symbols and artefacts, etc. that are used in conjunction with, or as substitutes for, what is spoken. Conversations maintain realities through an accumulated mass of continuity, consistency, and relatedness to other conversations (Berger & Luckmann, 1996; Watzlawick, et al, 1974).” (4)

And the place that that can most reliably predicted to happen is in the conversations that we might call “planning”:

a) not just the BIG planning conversations of the enterprise, but all those conversations in which we align our understanding and create shared meaning for our actions, and

b) though not in scheduling on MS Project – although the best scheduling conversations will in fact have significant social interactions built in,

c) but in the kind of planning successful generals seem to have always understood, yet we can identify with in everyday life:

“The tactical result of an engagement forms the base for new strategic decisions because …a battle changes the situation to such a degree that no human … is able to see beyond the first battle. In this sense one should understand Napoleon’s saying: “I have never had a plan of operations.“ … no plan of operations extends with any certainty beyond the first contact with the main hostile force.“(5)

“Paradoxical as it may seem, there is an important role for planning in emergent design. Even though a plan may evolve considerably over time, we need its content at any one point to help us coordinate our individual actions in that moment. Also, planning occasions conversations that are the medium for the emergence and evolution of shared ideas and relationships, the continuous renewal of shared understanding, common purpose, alignment and trust.”(6)

Of course, not everything that goes under the name of planning is up to the challenge of coordinating us in conversation.

“While it is now commonplace to say that our world is complex to the nth degree, it is another thing to try and map out that complexity in a chain of causes and effects as results-based management frameworks attempt to do. Planning and reporting methods that attempt to do so, while useful under conditions that are relatively simple and orderly, are not credible ways to generate understanding of contexts where complexity and uncertainty are high.” (7)

In fact we need to shift our attention from the content of the planning – the attempt to control the future by specifying its trajectory – to the conversations of planning:

“The results indicate that the group processes leading to the development of shared strategic cognition are more important than the outcome of shared strategic cognition in terms of predicting organizational performance.”(8)

“ ‘complexly structured, non-additive behaviour emerges out of interactive networks. . . . interactive agents unite in an ordered state of sorts, and the behaviour of the resulting whole is more than the sum of individual behaviours. Ordered states. . . [arise] . . . when a unit adapts its individual behaviours to accommodate the behaviours of units with which it interacts. …Interacting people and organizations tend …to adjust their behaviours and worldviews to accommodate others with whom they interact. Networks with complex chains of interaction allow large systems to correlate, or self-order. … Humans adjust their interaction based on characteristics of the other parties to the interaction. Extensive communication among large networks of humans can spread and create self-ordering structures, such as norms. “ (9)

So conversations, demonstrably in the form of “planning conversations”, and in fact in other significant forms too, are what enable us to become the big wave surfers of enterprise.

(1) Principia Cybernetica web http://pespmc1.vub.ac.be/COMPLEXI.html cache accessed 250913

(2) This different kind of order is usually referred to as a “higher level”, but I’m not sure what the reference point is for that comparator.

(3) Photograph by Shalom Jacobovitz http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:2010_mavericks_competition.jpg. The big wave surfing metaphor is worth keeping in mind. Being on top of the wave is better than being under it, and conversations make it more likely that you can ride complexity. But there are no guarantees. Mark Foo (December 23, 1994), and Sion Milosky (March 16, 2011) died surfing this wave at Mavericks.

(4) Mary A. Ferdig Complexity Theories: Perspectives for the Social Construction of Organizational Transformation http://www.sba.muohio.edu/management/mwacademy/2000/21d.pdf

(5) Moltke “On Strategy” (1871), as translated in Moltke on the Art of War

(6) Anthony L. Suchman 2012 Organizations as Machines, Organizations as Conversations: Two Core Metaphors and their Consequences Relationship Centered Health Care University of Rochester School of Medicine and Dentistry p1

(7) Daniel Buckles &Jacques Chevalier 2012 Assessing the impact of international Volunteer co-operation IVCO International forum on development service

(8) Michael D. Ensley & Craig L. Pearce Shared cognition in top management teams: implications for new venture performance Journal of Organizational Behaviour 22, 145±160 (2001) http://web.cgu.edu/faculty/pearcec/Cognition_in_TMTs.pdf

(9) James W. Begun, Brenda Zimmerman, Kevin Dooley, 2002 Health Care Organizations as Complex Adaptive Systems. Revised version in S. S. Mick and M. E. Wyttenbach (eds.), Advances in Health Care Organization Theory (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2003).

David Jones

Changing the ways people talk to get work done.

New work? New conversation! Change Conversation.

10 reasons why Conversational Methods are essential to facing complexity


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Conversations are the crucible in which humans build shared understanding, engagement and intent around a problem space. And, particularly relevant to our present situation in the world, conversation brings to bear the highest human capacity for facing complexity in real time.

“The most essential responsibilities for managers…can be characterized as participation in conversations for possibilities that open new backgrounds for the conversations for action” (Winograd and Flores, Computers and Cognition)

“We know that even at the heart of production lies innovation. We know that enterprise, and societal competitive advantage is driven by knowledge. Not just in the design and delivery of products/services, but in day-to-day problem solving and decision-making processes (especially considering results and impact). We know that to mitigate the impact of complexity upon an organisation that there is a need for devolution and the empowerment of front-line personnel, the sensory receptors that enable fast reactions to the changing environment. We also know that the ability to network and collaborate is a vital component in becoming resilient against the effects of complexity. ” http://theknowledgecore.wordpress.com/2012/10/14/complexity-and-integrated-reporting-a-new-opportunity-for-km/

These are the indicators that you need a capability in conversation. Only in the brilliance of what humans can be when they talk together – using patterns that are crafted wisely – can we really be resilient in the face of complexity.

Recommendations that are purely grounded in procedural control have an inevitable brittleness. They are as misdirected as this patented machine for the perfect golf swing….

Over the next series of posts I will introduce 10 reasons why conversation is vital for enterprises that face complexity – and how enterprises can become complex adaptive systems through unlocking the brilliance of human capability in the requisite conversations:

…in order to allow for the inevitable feature of emergence

…in order to bring the “organisation” into being

…in order to activate and apply our capacity for adaptive expertise

…in order to harness the power of fuzziness in language

…in order to access the multiple perspectives required to grasp the system

…in order to clarify and cultivate our values that will bound our system activity

…in order to access the requisite variety essential to leadership in the system

…in order that we can participate in forming the necessary shared context

…in order to take energy in from our operating environment

…in order to access the enduring DNA of narrative

David Jones

Changing the ways people talk to get work done.

New work? New conversation! Change Conversation.

Our industrialised world has made us blind to conversation


Conversation is so close to us, so pervasive, that we don’t see how significant it can be.

Sometimes we need a reframe to see things that are so close to us.

In a 1956 edition of American Anthropologist, an article by Horace Miner, “Body Ritual among the Nacirema”, describes the “magical beliefs and practices” of a tribe observed by Miner in great detail and expresses concern about several of the group’s slightly masochistic tendencies. Some of the Nacirema customs include scraping and lacerating the face or legs with a sharp instrument, piercing the skin with sharp instruments and then taking great care to keep those holes from closing again, painting of the body, and inserting and ritualistically moving a bundle of hog hairs in the mouth several times a day. The people of this tribe seek the assistance of medicine men many times during the course of a year to treat physical ailments, release them from the power of devils that have lodged in their heads, and gouge holes in their teeth. (This last is done in the hopes of avoiding oral decay and offending one’s friends). The Nacirema gather in large numbers to watch clans within the tribe enact small battles, often with many physical injuries, and to observe individual tribal members fight to unconsciousness.” (source: http://iris.peabody.vanderbilt.edu/wp-content/uploads/2013/07/icl004.pdf)

2 questions:

If you were a teacher, how would you deal with Nacirema children in your classroom who insisted on maintaining their tribal customs?

What does Nacirema spell backward?


Now go take another look at what’s happening at your workplace through the window of conversation. Which conversations are routine and smooth like shaving, and which ones are scraping and lacerating the face or legs with a sharp instrument? Which conversations hurt a bit, because “You can’t think decently if you don’t want to hurt yourself” (Wittgenstein), and which are just like piercing the skin with sharp instruments and then taking great care to keep those holes from closing again. Which conversations support good relational hygiene, and which might as well be inserting and ritualistically moving a bundle of hog hairs in the mouth several times a day?

The choice is yours. How you see things, how you name them, and how you design in response to them.

Change conversation.

David Jones

Changing the ways people talk to get work done.

New work? New conversation! Change Conversation.

Thanks Tom



A long-valued friend who works in a major telecommunications firm was recently on the edge of a business conversation about big data.

He suggested that they change conversation.
“What is the data saying”
“What does the business need to ask the data?”

Do you have a sense of how much will need to change in the sociology of the managers in that business for that to take place?

Conversations that hope for magic solutions, that abdicate responsibility, that expect IT to give answers. Vague “stuff” emerges that people then have to invent ideas about how to go forward. Not as though they didn’t already have a surfeit of information without insight….

Conversations in which they take responsibility their future, hypothesise what it could look like, form views on where they might need to act, and provide questions to the analysts that are sharpened and honed in conversation to inform what they need to know in order to commit to action.

Good advice, Tom

Change conversation, indeed.

David Jones

Changing the ways people talk to get work done.

New work? New conversation! Change Conversation.