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Implications for organisations

by Kate Lonsdale

Organisations and complexity - does adaptation require a new paradigm for management?

In most cases the answer will probably be, for most organisations, not in the short term.  The following thoughts explore the implications for organisations of 'learning our way into a mysterious future' which  'calls for continuously revisiting what might be going on , what we are doing and achieving, and the way we are doing it' (Flood,1999:90).

Complex adaptive systems function best at the 'edge of chaos', between order and disorder.  How do you create that in an organisation?   How do you persuade managers with a mechanistic perspective of organisations to take the risk of letting that go and moving from a situation where there is (at least the illusion of) control, order, logic and predictability to one of order within chaos, fuzzy logic, and where change is dynamic and evolving? 

Good planning is often explained as being setting clear goals and describing ways that those goals might be achieved in a way that is logical and transparent (van Woerkum et al, 2007).  Such 'rational' approaches are, however, unsuitable for any but the most 'tame' of problems (Rittel and Weber, 1973).  Darwin et al, (2002) propose a spectrum ranging from 'tame' through, 'tricky', 'wild' to 'wicked'.  They suggest that rational approaches are increasingly ineffective as you move from tame to wicked (Darwin et al, 2002: 177).  There is a shift from 'either/or', bipolar, crisp logic emanating from a sense (or illusion) of certainty, structure, command and control approach to 'both+and' uncertainty, complexity, emergence, mutualism and co-evolution (Darwin et al, 2002:180).

Rational planning requires predictability in the system that uncertain, complex and dynamic environments cannot provide (Ford and Ogilvie, 1996, Eyben, 2005 and others).  Uncertainty in the system can be due to external factors (e.g. increase in flooding due to unprecedented rainfall) or to human processes that are shaped by emotions, values and norms (van Woerkum et al, 2007).  Strategies are important (Morgan, 2008 1) but rarely followed closely as 'many planners tend to neglect the 'discursive, interpretive, communal nature of organisational life' (Addleson, 1996) and the informal exchanges and dramas of daily life that mean that plans have to be continuously shaped and reshaped.  Habermas (1984), used 'lifeworld' as a term to integrate logic and the social world of an individual and noted that this could be supported or constrained by institutional structures e.g. conversations about effective partnership can become taken up as company policy and lock employees into a rigid pattern of behaving that is paradoxically ineffective(Bradbury, 2007).   Habermas (1984) proposes that lifeworld can be 'reanimated' through paying attention to developing effective relationships, dialogue and processes of enquiry and so produce more sustainable organisations (see also Pasteur and Scott Villiers,2004).

How do you capture complexity in an organisational context?

March and Simon ( 1958) described people as having 'bounded rationality' meaning that they are not capable of effectively taking into  account all the information available in a given situation and thus, to an extent, the environment is always partially unknown and unknowable.  Decisions in organisations are therefore, made with an element of personal bias as choice of what information to pay attention to is subjective (van Woerkum, et al, 2007). 

Another aspect of human cognition is that people often see issues and situations in terms of pictures or metaphors and that this 'constitutes a very natural and critical aspect of our everyday thinking process' (Lakoff and Johnson, 1980).  Using metaphors in various ways, e.g.  through speech, art, diagrams, theatre etc is a way to develop an understanding of the organisation as it is perceived now, which provides information about what needs to change and suitable interventions.  Much has been written about the power of metaphors in communicating complexity.  The main features have been captured by Barner, (2008) as:


  • Able to direct attention towards certain aspects of organisational experience while forcing other aspects into the background, thus slanting our perceptions
  • Providing a vehicle for expressing feeling states too difficult to communicate through linear thought
  • Confront organisational  complexity and ambiguity by connecting a broad array of interrelated thoughts, feelings and beliefs with the potential of making it understandable and less overwhelming
  • Disclosing tacit information or 'painful truths' that could never be divulged in normal circumstances to superiors
  • Complex and intimate experiences that cannot easily be communicated because of linguistic constraints

As organisational change is commonly experienced as being a stressful experience eliciting emotional responses such as sadness, anger and anxiety, understanding what meaning people are making of the situation requires an approach that can capture and make sense of these elements.  

What are the implications for taking a complexity approach in organisational change?

The first thing that comes to mind is 'power' and society's taboos about upsetting the status quo. Taking a complexity view inevitably requires shaking up existing power structures and, paradoxically, if this is to happen it is the people who get considerable power, and often, status from the existing system that have to vote it in.  

Darwin et al, (2002:215) describe a number of principles for looking at complexity and its implications for organisations.  These are outlined below:


  1. Encourage democracy
  2. Facilitate multiple perspectives
  3. Recognise fuzzy boundaries
  4. Keep thinking and action in dynamic tension
  5. Value process and put trust in process
  6. Allow for and encourage proactive emergence
  7. Facilitate learning
  8. Accept (embrace) the absence of certainty and foundations 

All these 'principles' require a fundamental shift in power structures.  Snowden (2005), notes  that in complex systems the manager shifts from trying to tightly manage (unmanageable) situations to being aware of 'attractors' and 'barriers' to encourage desired, and discourage undesired, behaviour.  The manager thus learns to empower others, to encourage them to contribute, to suspend judgement and create opportunities for dialogue (Isaacs, 1999).  Someone who was attracted to the position of a manager in a hierarchical system is unlikely to embrace such a shift in organisational mindset comfortably. 

 To empower others, Chambers, (2005:73), suggests 3 things may be important namely:


  • minimum rules (Chambers cites the example of MYRADA, an NGO in South India, which set up women's savings groups with 2 rules: transparent and accurate accounting and rotating leadership by women in the group). 
  • non negotiable principles (Chambers gives the example of Mahila Samatha, a women's empowerment NGO, who instead of kowtowing to funders conditions set up their own that were not open to negotiation e.g. 'the women determine the form, nature, content and timing of all activities in the village' or 'planning, decision-making and evaluation processes are accountable to the collective of village women'.  
  • downward accountability e.g. local people in a development programme monitor and evaluate programmes

All Chambers example relate to development projects where imbalances of power can be particularly overt (and unpleasant) but the message he gives is transferrable to other contexts.  Fowler, (1997:183) describes the challenge that such shifts in power structures provokes to our organisations and to us as individuals: 'it is not just a question of applying new techniques and procedures, but of reversing many aspects of organisational culture which lie at the heart of assumptions and behaviour'.   

Another key change in a complexity approach is the need to invest in building relationships.  Processes of learning, the possibility of running effective spaces for sharing multiple perspectives, trusting the process etc all depend on the quality of the relationships between the individuals in the system.  If people are scared, confused, bored, too busy and so on, the level of the interaction will be reduced.  The organisation thus has to ask the question 'if relationships are important, what are the implications for us as an organisation? (Pasteur and Scott Villiers, 2004).  The role of the facilitator becomes important here as someone who can from a neutral position (or accepted non neutral position) encourages and support processes of engagement and dialogue. 

Management through minimal control requires a considerable 'leap of faith' for most organisations, especially those that pride themselves on professional standards, accreditation etc.  Those with power often prefer to make rules and impose controls that inhibit, rather than encourage creativity and diversity in the decision making process (Chambers, 2005).      Agile project management was developed in the software industry and is based on complexity thinking, specifically how from simple local rules patterns emerge that are greater than the sum of the parts.  In this approach managers become 'adaptive leaders' and rigid strategies are transformed into guiding principles and practices.   APM recommends 6 practices for managing projects in complex adaptive systems.  Although the focus is on project management, many of these practices could also be appropriate at the organisational level (Augustine and Woodcock, 2003).


  1. Establish a guiding vision and continually reinforce it through words and actions
  2. Facilitate collaboration and team work through investing in relationships
  3. Simple rules - establish and support the team's set of guiding practices
  4. Provide open access to information
  5. Light touch - apply just enough control to foster emergent order
  6. Agile vigilance - Constantly monitor and adjust

To make this approach operational the questions arising from these principles could be discussed within our organisation and the implications explored.  Trying to create a rigid structure for operationalising such principles would, of course, miss the point.  I could imagine interventions to encourage aspects of a complexity approach as opportunities arose e.g. using the new internal intranet system as a place to store project reports so that they become accessible to all, using open agendas at the start of meetings to allow all issues of importance to be raised there and then, and time to be allocated in an open process.  I could imagine a process of 'small shifts' and a gradual changing of power (and responsibility) across the group. I could also imagine interventions to open up what things were given attention and talked about within the organisation (Shaw, 2002) 



Addleson, M. (1996), Resolving the spirit and substance of organisational learning, Journal of Organisational Change Management, Vol 9, No 1, pp 32-41.

Augustine, S.  and Woodcock, S., (2003) Agile Project Management, CC PACE Systems,

Barner, R. (2008), The Dark Tower: Using visual metaphors to facilitate emotional expression during organisational change, Journal of Organisational Change, Vol 21, No.1, pp 120-137.

Chambers, R., (2005), Ideas for Development, Institute of Development Studies, Earthscan.

Darwin, J., Johnson, P. and McAuley, J (2002), Developing Strategies for Change, FT Prentice Hall.

Eyben, R, (2005) Donor's learning difficulties: Results, relationships and responsibilities, IDS Bulletin, Vol 36, No.3, Increased Aid Minimising problems, Maximising Gains, September 2005, Institute of Development Studies.

Flood, R.L. (1999) Rethinking the Fifth Discipline: Learning within the unknowable, Routledge.

Ford C.M. and Ogilvie, D.T., (1996), The role of creative action in organisational learning and change, Journal of Organisational Change Management, Vol 7 No 5,  pp 54-62.  

Fowler, A., (1997), Striking a balance: A Guide to Enhancing Effectiveness of Non Governmental Organisations in International Development, Earthscan, London.

Habermas, J. (1984), The Theory of Communicative Action, Boston, Beacon Press.

Lakoff G. and Johnson, M. (1980), Metaphors we live by, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, IL. 

March, J.G. and Simon, H.A., (1958), Organisations, Wiley, New York.

Morgan, S. (2008), Change Agent Skills and Strategy seminar, University of Surrey, UK

Pasteur, K. And Scott Villiers, (2004), If relationships matter, how can they be improved? Learning about relationships in development, Lessons for Change in Policy and Organisations No 9, Institute of Development Studies, University of Sussex.

Rittel, H.W. and Weber, M.M. (1973), Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning, Policy Sciences, 4:155-69

Shaw, P. (2002), Changing conversations in organisations: a complexity approach to change, Routledge.

Snowden, D.J. (2005), Multi-ontology sense making: a new simplicity in decision making, Management Today, Yearbook 2005, Vol 20, ed Havenga, R.

van Woerkum, C.M.J.,  Aarts, M.N.C. and de Grip, K. (2007), Creativity, planning and organisational change, Journal of Organisational Change, Vol 20, No. 6, pp 847-865.

1 Stuart Morgan, CASS seminar, University of Surrey, introduced the paradox of strategies, that they are rarely kept to but are disabling if they are not present at all

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