Organisation design: complexify our practice

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From Sharon Varney:  My news is that I have (finally!) written the book I was talking about last time we met. Although the title is leadership, it engages with the notion of pro-active org design that you were exploring at The Henley Forum conference a couple of years ago. … Would you be interested in reading and reviewing a pre-publication copy?

Me:  Yes, I’d be delighted to read your book.  Will it be a hard or a soft copy?  (Hard preferred as I find it easier to mark up, flick back and forwards in and dip into).

The book, Leadership in Complexity and Change: for a world in constant motion, arrived in my in-box in soft copy, as an uncorrected proof in early September, and in hard copy at the end of October.   I did skim through the soft copy and you’ll see mention of it in my blog Data and Complexity

My hard copy is now getting a somewhat used look, and I’ve found it an excellent read.  Caveat: I can’t make the fulsome recommendation I would like to, on the lines of, ‘I have no doubt in my mind that this is a book to read’, because Varney tells us, p 197, that when she hears the phrase, ‘I have no doubt in my mind’,  she thinks ‘what a lack of imagination!’ Following up with, ‘I realise that it is the kind of certainty that often people want to hear in uncertainty.’  She urges us to wield the inner courage to embrace doubt – maintaining multiple and conflicting possibilities at the same time.   I don’t know whether you will enjoy the book, learn from it, apply some of the thinking, … maybe you will/maybe you won’t, I did. 

The book’s introduction tells readers, ‘This book paints a picture of an interconnected world that is in constant motion, where leadership is enacted in the midst of complexity and change,’ and this is what the book does.  In a straightforward, accessible way, woven with anecdotes, cases, key points and noticing activities for the reader, Varney ‘invites’ us to complexify our leadership practices, in order to lead better. 

In three sections:  A dynamic landscape for leadership and change, tools and techniques for leadership, leadership in person, Varney discusses key ideas from complexity science (the science of uncertainty) and gives insights and ideas in how to apply them in the day to day, changing some of our ingrained habits of thinking along the way. 

The book is a welcome counter view to the ideas that leaders are ‘ín charge’ and can control and manage their environments as if organisations are stable.  In fact, as she says, ‘organisational stability only arises through continuous changing’, and that continuous changing is what she calls ‘dynamic patterning’.   

One of the key themes is that of ‘emergence’ – something that was not there before comes into existence.  She notes that emergence is full of surprises ‘because cause and effect are all tangled up’, and it is this that we need to intentionally notice, interpret, and reflect on, before responding.

Each chapter closes with ‘Noticing and noting’ activity. For example, in the chapter Applying Complexity Thinking the activity is to ‘Think about a leadership or change model that you have used before. Now look at that model with new eyes.  Ask yourself:  In what ways is that model wrong, in what ways is that model useful, what am I not seeing, what other models could help me to see things differently?

Overall, I think the book offers a sound and useful contribution to the field of complexity science applied to leadership.  It’s born out of Sharon’s own practical experience and academic reflections.  I enjoyed the conversational style (first person, jargon-light, concepts clearly explained) – it’s definitely not a drudge to read.

One of the plus points, for me, is the sound theoretical underpinning – the reference list is comprehensive, running to 10 pages.  (But, rest assured, this is no academic tome), and there is a glossary of terms from complexity science.  (It also includes some terms Varney has developed for her own related work e.g. small data).

The book has left me asking four questions – by the way, powerful questioning is one of the leadership traits Sharon strongly advocates.  She, rightly, says ‘Questions offer a great way to open up thinking.  Answering closes it down.  Answers are fine in a stable world where inputs have clear outputs, problems have knowable solutions, and interventions have predictable effects.  We are not working in that world.’

My first question is:  how many leaders are willing to have conversations that challenge conventional thinking on power, control, and ‘change management’?  In my experience, not many in the day to day working world, though they will, up to a point, in ‘development sessions’. 

I remember offering a leader a couple of design options for his organisation, with the pros and cons of each and how they might play out and the possible consequences, intended and unintended of them.  He was not pleased.  He asked me ‘which one is right?’ when I replied ‘I don’t know, they could probably both work’.   He exploded, saying, ‘We’re paying you a lot of money to give us the right answer!’

My second question is:  what prevents them from being willing or able to engage in such conversations?  Sometimes I’ve found it is impatience with the consultant (me!) being ‘too academic’ or ‘too theoretical’.  Other times it’s performance pressures – got to get the paper to the executive by 16:00 today, no time to discuss, just get something on paper.  Sometimes it’s not being willing to be curious – ‘I’m just here to do my job’.  There are multiple other reasons. 

One of the challenges for this book is drawing in a readership who aren’t already sympathetic to complexity science, but who might benefit from it (for themselves and their organisations), if they could get interested.

My third question, was triggered by a statement by Leandro Herrero, in his book The Flipping Point:  ‘Many long, complex and expensive reorganization projects by Big Consulting Groups make companies fully prepared for the past.’   Is this a fair statement?   As organisational leaders look to the big consulting companies to help them, I was curious about what they said about complexity.

The ones that I looked at suggested that their aim was to ‘solve’ or ‘simplify’ complexity.   

An Accenture blog, for example, explains ‘organizations face more complex challenges; this complexity can be costly. …  Therefore, solving the complexity becomes a valuable skill for organizations.’

While PA Consulting ‘works with organisations to help them to simplify complexity and to better understand, manage and exploit interdependencies.’ 

Varney suggests that, ‘What we are aiming for is to complexify our [leadership] practice’, (p 199).  The implication being that this will help leaders respond to surprises and emergence better than if they try to simplify or solve situations.  (Her final chapter suggests ways leaders can complexify their practice). Her view is that, ‘Complexity is the source of adaptability. So, by all means simplify bureaucracy. But, if you remove complexity, you’ll lose the internal ability to adapt in a changing world.’ 

From this, a fourth question sprang to mind – is it possible to simplify or solve complexity as the big consultancies seem to be saying, or is it more effective to complexify our practice, as Varney is saying?

 How would you answer this last question?  Let me know.

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