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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.