In a world that changes increasingly faster and faster, the perceived complexity increases with it. It becomes harder to predict the status quo even on the short-term, perhaps even that of tomorrow. The attempts to make predictions become useless. An obsolete approach.
We need to stop acting like we have control over what will happen in the future. We just don’t know. Often we are not even close. What’s the point of making predictions of the future anyway, and then trying to control what happens?
Organizations are the best example of future predictors. They keep trying to figure out the most likely scenario’s to occur based on what happened in the past. Organizations have difficulties in accepting the fact that these predictions are not only a waste of time, it’s even worse than that. They even try to understand what happened in the past based on the present situation. What happened in the past was just one of the possible outcomes. There are no parallel pasts that occurred at the same time and that have led to where we are now. Rationalizing what happened then, is like denying what could have occurred. Sometimes it helps to understand phenomena, but using that for future predictions means that the same mistakes are being made over and over again.
Again, we have to stop predicting, and start nurturing the current situation in a way that good outcomes will flourish, independent of what that outcome can be. It’s not the outcome that matters most, it’s the road to it. The road to it (where ever it will lead) is an emergent path. So many influences are on the lurk, so many that no one knows how many and what they are, that they should be dealt with along the way. They both can be positive or negative, both will have influence on the emergence.
Dealing with matter like I described above is so different then how we are used to, and not only different, but scary as well. To accept and be comfortable with uncertain paths is not suitable for most organizations nowadays. And it won’t be for the years to come probably. However, we see more and more organizations that operate in a networked environment, where many stakeholders play a role. In these situations, long-term strategies are being replaced by emergent strategies, where control does not have a place.
Coming back to the title of the post, maybe it is somewhat exaggerated at the moment, maybe it is more realistic to speak of a change from long-term goals to short-term goals. Dealing with short-term goals combined with iterative processes is a good first step towards completely letting go of control and accepting that everything is emergent. We are humans with brains that can think ahead in time, let’s not forget that important aspect of us.
A term that is used in many circumstances, is empowerment. It is used on so many occasions (both verbally and in written text), that I feel that it is misused more often than that it is used correctly. Or is it just a management fad, like BPR or TQM?
Empowerment refers to increasing the spiritual, political, social or economic strength of individuals and communities. It often involves the empowered developing confidence in their own capacities. […] Empowerment is the process that allows one to gain the knowledge, skill-sets and attitude needed to cope with the changing world and the circumstances in which one lives.
Ok, that’s what Wikipedia reads. The post of Mike Griffiths recently triggered (or empowered?) me to rethink empowerment. I can recall some papers I’ve read some years ago at the university about the subject. I also remember the debate it triggered there, because it can be interpreted in so many ways. Empowerment can refer to both individuals and communities. It refers to empowering a person or the collective. How does this work? Some questions come to mind here:
- Is empowerment something that benefits only people without any power?
- Who is powerful enough to empower others?
- Who knows what is needed to empower someone? (perhaps only the unempowered)
- Who or what benefits from empowerment?
- Why is the term interpreted in so many ways?
- Is empowerment of an individual or group a prerequisite for self-organization?
Without answering these questions immediately, I’d like to look at some real world examples where I think that empowerment is taking place. These places have some things in common. These places generally have a leader that leads the company quite different that the common leadership practices. They are not alone and unattainable at the top of the pyramid, they make sure that employees are involved not only in their own tasks and responsibilities, they know what their clients want and make sure that their employees know as well. These and some other characteristics are practices by only a few leaders, leaders that dare to make extraordinary decisions, that give control to their employees. Companies that have some similarities with these characteristics are Zappos and Semco, for example. These are companies that make quite ordinary products, have great results, but run their companies not like their competitors do. I’d like to call these companies examples of the real empowering companies. You just feel that you would like to work for them. That makes a company a great company, if you ask me.
To come back to some of the questions I posed earlier in this post, for example the question ‘Why is the term interpreted in so many ways?‘, I can say it depends heavily on who used the term. It can be the manager that tries to make others only work harder instead of really making them really more responsible for what they do, or it can be the employee that feels like not having enough resources or information he or she needs, or to feel more involved. If empowerment is a management fad, is hard to answer. I think it can easily be or become a management fad, but some core-principles that can be attributed to empowerment are really valuable and here to stay. These are universal, humane and part of the science of empowerment.
Another question I asked in this post is ‘Is empowerment of an individual or group a prerequisite for self-organization?‘. Perhaps it is. Empowered employees are able to manage themselves, both individually or in a collective. Maybe it is self-management, however, I prefer to make use of self-organization, for obvious reasons. In the problem statement I stated some time ago, I made an assumption by stating ‘how to […] empower employees for self-organization?‘. It seems this assumption still stands for me. To be continued…
In my last post I argued that crises are the result of complexity. While I still hold this argument, a crisis is probably a situation where complexity is at a maximum, if there is a maximum. The situation will probably not become more complex than that. A response I got on the previous post from John Marke was a reference to his paper ‘Why bad things happen to good policies‘. I will come back in more detail about his paper later, but one of the important statements is that all paradigmatic shifts are preceded by crises. That’s interesting, if complexity is followed by a crisis, and a crisis is followed by a paradigmatic shift, then complexity will be followed by a paradigmatic shift.
Complexity → Crisis → Paradigmatic shift
Complexity can be seen as a positive feedback loop towards complexity, while a paradigmatic shift is a negative feedback loop towards a ‘stable’ but new (and temporary) equilibrium. A new equilibrium in the sense that it was not predicted or a situation that was stable before. If we can speak of systems here (depends on your point of view on systems), at least we are talking about complex systems, or complex adaptive systems.
If a paradigmatic shift follows a crisis, then who or what sparks this shift to occur? It’s hard to say. In a complex environment, there is a huge network of resources that is ever-expanding. The value of a network is proportional to the square of the number of connected users of the system (Metcalfe). That makes it unpredictable where this shift is coming from, but chances are that it can come from a bottom-up, self-organized distributed sub-network within the system. A question that John Marke asks the reader in his paper is ‘how could we empower them’? First we have to identify the possible ‘we’ and ‘them’. Or shouldn’t ‘we’, and should it be more emergent? Marke poses a similar choice, adapt to the complex adaptive system, or harness complexity and have it work in your advantage.
I like his way of thinking, because either you just accept the fact that you can do anything except adapt, or understand some properties of the system (emergent, unexpected, self-organized, highly connected, adaptive). The latter has more interesting possibilities, and is more congruent with these characteristics. Remember, you are probably in this complex adaptive system as well, play a role, and have the same characteristics. It’s not something totally alien.
In this present situation, it is easy to understand that the situation is getting complex more quickly than it did in the past. That means that crises are about to occur more often, and the same is true for paradigmatic shifts. The thing we need to accept is that situations are not stable, and these ‘stable’ situations are volatile and temporary. Solutions are valid for a short period of time, almost by definition. And why do we want to reach a situation that worked in the past, while the environment around us keeps changing in a rapid pace?
This post is my answer to the paper of John Marke. He’s in the process of writing another, on resilience, the solution space of complexity as he puts it.
Crises are a result of complexity, or better, a result of environments that become more complex than they were for quite a while. We see it all the time. While more people are and become more connected with more people, complexity levels will rise. My thesis here is that when complexity levels rise, entering a crisis is very likely. It’s very likely that something will happen that is unexpected, and has never occurred before. There is no plan or prescription of how to deal with this situation. So what happens when such a situation occurs? It can happen that people panic. It’s their initial response to something unexpected and apparently undesired. After some time, or when more crises occur, many people will blame others. It’s just not their fault, so it must be someone others fault and these people should solve the problem. Of course, one of the characteristics of complexity and crises is that many actors play a role and many connections are present between those actors that it is not easy to blame the right people for a crisis. I think that a Complex Adaptive System (CAS) has similar characteristics.
While the above introduction can be invalidated quite easily by the most of you, including myself, I think there’s something very true in it. Our environments are more complex than they were ten or fifteen years ago, or maybe even three years ago. Complex situations become more common and more normal every year. It would not be a good response to panic or blame others. It’ll probably be better to accept the fact that the world is quite complex, and that there is not a standard solution for everything. As crises become normal, deal with it normal.
Dealing with it as normal is not as easy done as it is said. There is so much we just can’t understand. The human brain is simply not capable of understanding all phenomena. That, and the fact that we are so dependent on so many other people from many countries and the more and more declining availability natural sources makes the world in the years to come even more complex. That is at least one good reason to change our behavior and attitude towards crises and complexity. It’s there and it will be there in the future waiting for us.
The question is, what do we have to change in our behavior and attitude to deal with crises and complexity like it is more normal? Not as business as usual, but because these situations will stay here and the world will become more and more complex. How do we not panic and not blame others for the new or changed situation? Crises are here to stay. I’m not sure what the right responses are, but I know that panicking will not help us so that’s at least one good response. The other ‘right’ responses probably depend on the particular situation, and sometimes responding will not help you at all. It will help to accept the crisis, accept that the situation is complex, and accept that you maybe can’t do anything about it. It’s a change in the mindset of people.
In the search for alternative modes of organization, I have come along a few already on this blog. In a comment on my earlier post on wirearchy, I already mentioned the concept of panarchy. Heterarchy, wierarchy and panarchy, all three are suggestions of how organization can be accomplished using alternative modes, in particular in situations where connections are easily accomplished by having online means of connecting. In this post I will try to unravel panarchy, according to Paul B. Hartzog this is a way governance can work in the network age. So what is panarchy? For the ones that have never heard of the concept before, it is the cumulative effect of the shift from hierarchies to networks is a system of overlapping spheres of authority and regimes of collective action, according to Hartzog. In short:
Complexity + Networks + Connectivity => Panarchy
The essay of Hartzog, which is a highly recommended read, explains the theoretical backgrounds and some real-world examples. I’m not an expert on this subject, but I do believe that we are reaching a point where other types of governance are better alternatives as opposed to hierarchical ones. I believe that global crises are about to occur much more often and that we should accept the fact that crises are a characteristic of our modern time. Instead of dealing with crises like we are doing today, that is fight them and trying to reach a stable equilibrium like we were used to do in the past, it is time to accept crises because of the properties of panarchy (such as complexity, networks and connectivity) are increasing and increasing, making the world more and more complex. This situation asks for systems that are complex as well, and not rigid, but rather flexible or fluid, like water that adapts to its environment. Water is a great metaphor here, it is strong, adaptive, and has some characteristics that always work within the same conditions. If we see situations we call crises now as reality and a logical result of increasing complexity, we don’t have to call these situation crises anymore.
So can panarchy be something like governance in the network age? That is a question which I find quite hard to answer. Is it a form of governance that encompasses all other forms? Or better, is there a form of governance that encompasses all other forms? Yes, you can call the shift panarchy if you like, but what’s the use of that? The paper I referred to does a great job in explaining what panarchy is, and Hartzog argues that it has the potential of becoming the dominant form of governance in the future. The importance of debates like this in my opinion is that many people still work and make big decisions that worked out well in earlier times, but not that good in the present time and not all in the future. The shift that we’re in, that the world is in, ultimately will lead to different modes of organization and governance. Power is more distributed, people are more connected and knowledge is created and transported in networks. Maybe one of the most important things that is happening, is that decision making is changing. It is changing in terms of who are able to make decisions because of where the knowledge is available, who can make the better decisions because of where the most accurate knowledge is available, and who are able to distribute the knowledge to let others make the decisions.
Ok, admitted, the end of the previous paragraph is nothing more than elaborating on the beginning of the previous paragraph and does not directly contribute to the main question here, but that is because (tacit) knowledge and decision-making are closely related to complexity, networks and connectivity, or panarchy if you like. And if the best decisions should be made, governance is important as well as organization. In addition to heterarchy and wirearchy, can panarchy help us as well?
We all know that hierarchical organizational forms are less and less effective and realistic at the present time. Even in the past this form of organization was being criticized by many. Power and authority are not exclusive for the top of the pyramid. People in organizations form relationships with more people, from inside and outside the organization. Organizational bounds are blurring, and the same is true for the bounds of departments. People choose with whom they interact, communicate, and who they trust. Hierarchical organizational forms do not fit in this picture.
In response to hierarchy, we see many terms and concepts that explain different forms of organization. I already mentioned heterarchies, and there are many more that describe networked forms of organization, such as peer-to-peer and panarchy. Another one, one that Harold Jarche pointed me to earlier in my quest, is wirearchy. At the time Harold mentioned this, I’d never came across it before. Now I have had the time to read more about it and to evaluate this organizing principle, inspired by companies that organize themselves differently with result (such as Semco). So what is wirearchy? According to the ‘father’ of the concept, Jon Husband, wirearchy is:
A dynamic two-way flow of power and authority, based on knowledge, trust, credibility and a focus on results, enabled by interconnected people and technology.
This definition of wirearchy explains how many people use the web to communicate and organize things. It’s emerging, it’s reciprocal, it’s about trust, it’s about learning and about creating knowledge. And about many more things. The most important characteristic is the flow of information. Information now flows more like water or air, which means it can reach us all very fast, like an epidemic. Key is to negotiate meaning with each other to learn and to gain knowledge, using the continuous flow of information.
Now in my quest I’m trying to pursue self-organization and online collaborative spaces. The concept of wirearchy is very much related. One can choose a place in the network, and by interacting with other peers, one can build (trusted) relationships and learn from the (global) network. The network extends our knowledge. The question I’m always struggling with is, does it really work that way if many organizations are organized like this? I mean, many organizations are still large and top down and have clear boundaries. When many organizations shift towards a wierarchy or network, will it be ‘better’? The opportunities are numerous, obviously. But are these ideas still in a pioneering stage? Which organizations will set the trend, if needed at all? How do we reach the tipping point of organizing in a different way? What is needed (apart from the infrastructure, which is there), and who is needed? Maybe we’re still not ready to reach that point, or better, maybe we are very close to that point, but perhaps we can not identify this yet. The future will tell…
Answering these questions is difficult, and perhaps not even needed. Predicting the future is something from the past. The world is changing too fast for that and uncertainty is too high. So discussing these subjects stays very important, in our way to understand what is going on, to learn from each other, and to stay in a constant dialogue. Is that what organizations should be after? Just have the conversations started, nurture it, and then just never let go of these conversations? Maybe it is. This can spur an organic growth of a constantly changing dynamic network. Therefore I would like to add something to the concept of wirearchy: the dynamic two-way flow should be never-ending, constantly reciprocal, in order to be dynamic and foster learning.
Well, after some posts about systems thinking and complex adaptive systems, the discussions where fruitful, but many of us are still disagree quite strongly about certain statements I or others have made in these posts and discussions. One of the disagreements is whether an organization is a system or not, or if you can look at an organization like it is a system. For me, it’s not 100% clear what a system is. Neither is it clear for me whether an organization is a system or not. What helps me, is to look at an organization as if it were a system, like for example Carter MacNamara does.
Some of us, myself included, thinks that it would help if we can agree on an operational definition of a system first. It would help in the dialogue, in discussing some topics that are strongly related to systems. It helps if the discussion would not be distracted by defining what a system is or is not. In this post I will try to accomplish to define a system. While this can seem as a useless try, because it seems so obvious to many, I think it can help. To start as blank as possible, let’s have a look what our friend Wikipedia says about systems:
A system is a set of interacting or interdependent entities forming an integrated whole. The concept of an ‘integrated whole’ can also be stated in terms of a system embodying a set of relationships which are differentiated from relationships of the set to other elements, and from relationships between an element of the set and elements not a part of the relational regime.
Quite abstract definition. But hold on, the definition of a system is further characterized by the following common characteristics:
- Systems have structure, defined by parts and their composition;
- Systems have behavior, which involves inputs, processing and outputs of material, energy or information;
- Systems have interconnectivity: the various parts of a system have functional as well as structural relationships between each other.
Let’s try to zoom in on some parts of this definition. Structure and interconnectivity is a rather common characteristic of many concepts. I think we can skip these here. The problematic characteristic is behavior. Apparently it involves input, processing and output, like a black box. What kind of behavior do we mean? Just systematic? Is it standard, predictable behavior? Or is complex and unpredictable allowed as well? Does the behavior show patterns or not? Are these causalities or not? Can a system always be optimized and made more efficient? Is there always a negative feedback loop in a system to control its behavior? Is there a desired state? All questions that are difficult to answer, but can be relevant when trying to zoom in on the behavior of a system. Another question is, which behavior makes it impossible to be a system? When can’t we speak of a system?
When thinking about systems and organizations, you immediately come across the differences between the two. People like to compare the two, because many people like to think that organizations can be controlled. However, unlike most natural systems, organizations are started and end in failure many times. Many times they fail because it can’t be controlled. It is more complex.
This comparison is clearly a problem we can not easily solve. It is quite philosophic, and it depends on what your worldview is how you look at it. However, a workable definition we can agree upon would be nice for the dialogue, so we can make the next steps. Unfortunately, if we look at systems like systems philosophy, it gets even more difficult.
According to systems philosophy, there are no “systems” in nature. The universe, the world and nature have no ability to describe themselves. That which is, is. With respect to nature, conceptual systems are merely models that humans create in an attempt to understand the environment in which they live. The system model is used because it more accurately describes the observations.
According to the above definition, there are no natural systems, only models. More on systems philosophy:
Systems are further expressed by listing the elements relationships, wholes, and rules associated with that system. Again, this is an arbitrary exercise true of all models humans create.
If it was difficult to define what a system is or is not, it sort of becomes impossible by now by using the word arbitrary. No wonder we cannot come to an agreement, and no wonder the discussion was taken over so often by the systems discussion. Can we say that everybody’s arguments are arbitrary? Does it all depend on the philosophical worldview (organic, mechanistic and process) you have that all compete with each other?
I started this post with two questions, but now I have many more questions instead of answering the first two. Not a problem at all, however, I hoped to come to a workable definition that would help structure the dialogue. Perhaps too much to ask for in a single try. I hope that you can add your view on the definition of a system, that will contribute to the understanding of systems thinking, complex adaptive systems and other concepts alike. Not to mention open and closed systems, or stochastic and deterministic systems.
Spending some time abroad as I just did in Thailand where you have to speak with the local population in English, when both of you aren’t native English speakers can sometimes result in funny misunderstandings. Not a problem at all, because you mostly just want to order some food or try to arrange some accommodation. In many occasions you end up with what you intended, or something close to it, because you can interact directly, and as a tourist the context is often not that difficult.
When you think about online means of discussing, debating, or other kinds of asynchronous communication, it is hard to express yourself as you precisely mean it, and maybe even harder to interpret the text in the way the sender meant it. It can get even more complicated if there is being a response which is asynchronous as well and that communication suffers from the same expression and interpretation problems. While these ‘problems’ can result into unexpected (and sometimes brilliant) responses, it are the disadvantages of written text. Not to mention the misunderstandings because some people are not native English speakers, assuming the text is written in that language.
The discussions about systems in earlier posts suffered from these problems as well. I’m convinced that the most of us do not vary that much in what we really mean, however there are some nuances in comparing an organization with a system or not, for example. While these discussions are very fruitful, and we share insights that can make us think slightly different about these subjects than before, there is a fundamental problem that is hard to overcome: written language. The problem with written language is that it comes too short in expressing yourself precisely as you mean it, and it comes short again when the written text is interpreted by the reader. By that time, at the least there are already two moments that change the initial meaning of the author. Hence, a picture is worth a thousand words.
The Internet is a place where many communications exist as asynchronous written text. This type of communication suffers from these shortcomings, and is an area where many improvements can be made. The theories of knowledge management can be useful here, for example, how do you deal with tacit knowledge? Can it be externalized and how? How do we make sense of the information that we have access to? What other information or knowledge do you use when interpreting new information? Just some questions that illustrate the problems of written language. Written language alone is often not enough for exchanging information learning, it are the (social) practices that makes us really understand and learn.
Overcoming these problems is one of the main challenges of improving asynchronous online communication and collaboration, there is a long way to go here. For this blog, I will continue in written text, and I’ll add an image now and then. The conversations that follow from it are far too valuable to change the way of communicating and expressing my thoughts. The shortcomings of written text result in conversations that you could never expect to be, and could probably never occur like that when everybody interpreted the text the way you initially meant it. I’m sure some more posts are needed too have the concept of systems thinking and complex adaptive systems refined, and I’m even more curious to the responses they will get. So far, I am thankful for the many insights you all showed me, that forced me to read more about it and changed the way I think of systems for example. Nice side effects of the shortcomings of written text…
The last post about ‘Systems thinking’ again showed differences in understanding of the subject. Mainly when systems thinking is compared to organizations. Can we make use of systems thinking when looking at organizations? Some think we can. Some think we can’t. That’s no surprise, as it is precarious to directly compare an organization with a system. It is very much a matter of definitions. I’m not after a discussion for definitions or understanding of a concept. My assumption (due to the earlier fruitful discussions) is that an organization is not a system, but at least it can help to apply systems thinking on organizations, as it helps to apply other thinking on organizations. The complexity and uniqueness of organizations just makes it impossible to always apply one way of thinking.
What about self-organization? It is not an organization, nor a complex adaptive system, rather, it is a process where organization spontaneously increases. Recently I was pointed to the work of the Japanese professor Iba (thanks Margaret). He’s definitely a systems thinker, especially complex systems and autopoiesis. He explains that there are many differences in theories when people are referring to systems theory. I make the mistake myself, when talking about systems thinking and systems theory. Prof. Iba gives a brief history of systems theory, that developed from 1st generation systems theory to 3rd generation.
The most interesting shift is from the 2nd to the 3rd, from self-organizing systems to autopoietic systems. Iba notes that there is a clear distinction between “self-organization” and “autopoiesis” after the revolution caused by third generation. In this context, self-organization is focused on structural formation, but autopoiesis is focused on system formation. This is where Luhmann comes in. Iba quotes him:
Autopoietic systems, then, are not only self-organizing systems, they not only produce and eventually change their own structures; their self-reference applies to the production of other components as well. This is the decisive conceptual innovation. […] Thus, everything that is used as a unit by the system is produced as a unit by the system itself. This applies to elements, processes, boundaries, and other structures and, last but not least, to the unity of the system itself.
Interesting to notice is that in the thinking of Iba (and Luhmann), self-organization and autopoiesis are concepts of a system. I thought that Luhmann couldn’t help me very much, but now I have my second thoughts on that. By applying his thinking, I conclude what is important is that organization is defined by the interplay between the elements of the system (or organization). The elements (or people) itself are not important for the system (or organization) to work, but the events and as a result the change in the elements and the system (again, or organization) due to the events are what matters.
Unfortunately, I have to compare systems and organizations once more. However, I keep struggling with it, it is not very satisfying. But if we are to understand social behavior in relation to an organization a bit more, I think self-organization or even autopoiesis can be of help. That brings back systems thinking or systems theory, at least for now, because I’m not in the process of developing a new theory here.
To conclude this post, self-organization (or autopoiesis) can apparently be seen as a concept of a system. The constant processes that come into play during self-organization makes organizations (or systems) change constantly. That is, the processes, the actors, and the whole (the organization or system). That makes an organization an almost fluid ‘thing’, like a Barbapapa. Food for thought. If that is true, how can we have an online collaborative space that functions like a fluid, as it acts as an environment (or system)?