(Self)-Organize for ComplexityMarch 4, 2015 5 Comments
“You’ve got to keep asserting the complexity and the originality of life, and the multiplicity of it, and the facets of it.”
– Toni Morrison
I’ve been re-reading Niels Pfleaging’s short book Organize for Complexity and appreciating how it succinctly captures the current challenges for many groups and organizations trying to navigate complexity while clinging to old tools and beliefs. This can also be the nature of social change work amidst the significant shifts we are seeing. Here’s the trick – as things shift more, and more rapidly, people’s natural inclination may be to try to exert greater control or dig in to what is familiar but does not work. The more one does so, the worse things can get. As Pfleaging writes, we see a “high price for the illusion of control.” Within organizations this takes the form of various gaps – social, functional, and temporal – that make them increasingly irrelevant and ineffective. Responding to complexity requires (to borrow a phrase from Eugene Kim) new muscles and mindsets.
If I could summarize my own reading of Pflaegings’s book, I would put it this way – the world we are living into requires more integrated ways of seeing and doing, and this is hard to do (if not impossible) if people maintain highly differentiated ways of organizing themselves. There is really a baseline call for self-awareness and mindfulness so that one is able to respond not by default or fear, but with perspective and intention, which connects to the idea of “strengthening the network within” at the individual level. And it is important to reach out and connect this self-awareness to others . . .
“Problem-solving in a life-less system is about instruction. Problem-solving in a living system is about communication.”
Throughout his book, Pflaeging notes that in all formal organizations, there are informal structures, and that these are really the life blood of those organisms. They are what contributes maximally to value creation, that is to being more intelligently responsive to needs and opportunities “out there.” Yet formalized structures often stand, by intention or by accident, as impediments to these informal structures. When things are complex, it can be helpful to connect the social system to more of itself so that people are better able to make sense of what is happening. This can sometimes mean getting out of the way of informal structures and inherent self-organizing tendencies, or creating spaces for informal sharing and connecting.
“Self-organization in complex systems is natural. Having “a leader” is not.”
Whether we are in nascent or long-standing organized efforts, there are threats of being pulled to the overly formalized, bureaucratic and centralized side of things. Pflaeging echoes others (including Mila Baker, Carol Sanford, and Frederic Laloux) in some of his recommendations for keeping eyes on and supporting the less formalized and life-affirming prize. These can be of great support generally-speaking in encouraging network ways of working.
- Let purpose [not incentives] drive behavior.
- Cultivate [guiding] principles, not rules.
- Emphasize roles, not [fixed] positions.
- Support and practice maximum transparency.
- Encourage informal knowledge forums, guilds, communities of practice.
- Decentralize, rather than delegate, decision-making (delegation still smacks of hierarchy).
This kind of work may be more difficult than what some typically lean towards. And there are those who might question its effectiveness and efficiency. But this is very much intelligent systemic work, organized as social and emergent processes.