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From As If... to Both... And

Posted By Bruce Waltuck, Thursday, August 11, 2011

Overcoming Common Change Errors Through the Lens of Complexity

Guest Author: Bruce Waltuck, M.A., Complexity, Chaos, and Creativity

A widely-cited report by IBM, noted that less than half of global CEO's surveyed, believe their organizations are "adequately prepared to handle a highly volatile, increasingly complex business environment." But just how do these CEO's understand complexity, and what methods do they typically use to effect change?

When it comes to understanding complexity in organizations, there isn't one single unified and accepted definition. But we do know common characteristics of complex human systems. The Edgeware Glossary section of the Plexus Institute's web site, provides a good foundation. It describes "phenomena demonstrated in systems characterized by nonlinear interactive components, emergent phenomena, continuous and discontinuous change, and unpredictable outcomes." This stands in contrast to many business processes or systems, which are fundamentally linear and deterministic, even if they are very complicated. For example, a Toyota has approximately 20,000 parts. But if you start at the beginning of the process, and follow the instructions in order, you'll get the same Camry every time at the end of the line. The same is not true of complex systems, which are highly sensitive to small differences, and whose next future state cannot be adequately predicted from an analysis of past outcomes.

The most common methods for change management over the past 50 years, have been rooted in the view of organizations as rather machine-like. We humans like processes that are predictable, stable, and controllable. So we have adopted methods for change management that presume those conditions exist. Methods such as Lean, Six Sigma, and TQM, all have their origins in this rather Newtonian world-view. For a purely technical process or problem, this approach is fine. If you have the right knowledge, people, and resources, you can get the results you want.

But the challenges of change do not present themselves in exclusively technical ways. We humans created the processes and organizations that we now want to control, or change. When a group of people sit around a table to discuss options and changes, they will think not only about the technical or complicated aspects of change. They will think about the change in terms of how it makes them FEEL. Any movement away from the status quo will be perceived as a movement away from the values and preferences of some, and towards the preferences of others. That creates tension, and the dynamic is complex.

Harvard's Ron Heifetz is a trained M.D. and psychiatrist. He could have had a career as a classical cellist. But he has devoted his life to exploring and teaching a way of leading through change, that recognizes the inherent blend of the complicated and the complex - what he calls the technical and adaptive - in organizations. In their latest book, The Practice of Adaptive Leadership, Heifetz and his colleagues describe the underlying dynamics of complex change in organizations. They note that adaptive (complex) change "creates dna that gives ways to flourish in new ways, and more challenging environments." They suggest that change leaders "observe, interpret, and intervene."

Dave Snowden has degrees in business and philosophy. Like Ron Heifetz, Dave has worked extensively on understanding the different domains of change challenges in organizations. Dave's Cynefin framework expands on Heifetz' basic dichotomy, describing simple, complicated, complex, and chaotic domains. As with Heifetz, distinctions are based on what is known, knowable, unknown, and unknowable. The Cynefin framework was the subject of an award-winning article by Dave with Mary Boone, in the Harvard Business Review.

Both Heifetz and Snowden help us understand - and hopefully avoid - the pitfall of "AS IF. . ." thinking and acting. That is, the desire for predictable and controllable systems making leaders treat truly complex/adaptive challenges AS IF they were in fact complicated and technical. While change can be mandated through the dynamics of power, underlying patterns based on individual and group beliefs and values will inevitably cause such mandates to fail over time. In my own 30 years of work with change in organizations, this is the single most common reason for failure.

The "lens of complexity" lets us see the patterns of human dynamics in organizations more as they are, than as we wish they were. If the CEO's in the IBM survey hope to survive and thrive in the increasingly complex environment they perceive, they would do well to develop the capacities of the "BOTH...AND..." mind, and the complexity-based approaches of Heifetz, Snowden, and others.

Additional resources on the ideas and teaching of Ron Heifetz, particularly as they are being applied to the challenges of healthcare reform:
GeorgiaHealthcare reform Report on Stakeholder Consultations (see page 7 on Heifetz)
Slide show on GA reform consultation for change (specifically on technical and adaptive)
Views >From the field: Funding Strategies for Behavioral Health, through the Heifetz lens

Bruce Waltuck has been a change leader, theorist, and teacher for over 30 years. He co-created and managed the USDOL's award-winning Employee Involvement and Organizational Improvement system, and pioneered unique collaborations in labor-management and public-private partnerships. For the past 12 years, Bruce has been a student and advocate of applying concepts from complex systems science to the work of leadership and change. He is a guest lecturer on complexity to doctoral students in psychology, and the author of a Primer on Complexity and Quality (ASQ). He can be reached at and he is on Twitter as @complexified. You'll know his car by its "cmplxty" license plate.

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