How to create the conditions for complex outcomes

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The natural world is teeming with creatures perfectly adapted to their environment – that have ways of walking, swimming and flying, live alone or in social groups and participate in an ecosystem with their own unique niche and capabilities?

Where do we begin trying to understand how they do it?

We start by breaking things down into parts that we can understand.

Like blind people touching parts of an elephant, we find pieces – a snake-like tail, a fan-like ear, a tree-like leg.

If we bolted a snake, a log and a fan together with the other bits that we identified, would we get an elephant?

The answer is clearly no – but we persist in trying to build complicated things from simpler pieces.

Take most systems, for example.

An organisation is a system made up of people in roles.

There are some at the top who see themselves as the brains and controllers of the outfit and many people who do work.

Organisations are often designed – made up of structures and hierarchies and reporting lines – held together and moved in a particular direction by incentives, punishments and guidance.

Does organisational behaviour come from the particular arrangement and positioning of people?

Or does it emerge from somewhere else?

The study of emergence looks at how complex behaviour arises from the interaction between simpler elements.

There is a difference between complex and complicated.

Complicated may be something like a steam train – with lots of moving parts. When the parts move in the way they should, we get something complicated like a moving train.

An example of a complex thing is a flock of birds flying in the sky together. Each bird maintains its distance from another – and the whole flock can swoop and move like a single living thing – but there is no one bird that plans or controls the action.

The complex thing that we can relate to easily is the Internet.

We are all connected by a vast decentralised network that has only a few simple rules about pages and links – but is so much more than that now.

Emergence is sometimes seen as the border between order and chaos.

In an ordered world, everything has its place – we put a rock on top of another rock and eventually we can get a building.

A chaotic world is dynamic – as elements combine randomly with feedback to create new conditions that – and range from the weather to swirls in a coffee mug.

As we move from order to chaos – we pass through emergence – and that is where life and the behaviour we see in the natural world seems to be.

But how can we use this in daily life or business?

With knowledge work in particular, a strict rules based approach is unlikely to create anything particularly interesting or innovative.

Instead, its the interaction between people with capabilities working together that creates output from the organisation that is “greater than the sum of its parts”.

Managers should try and do just a few things.

  1. Find good people.
  2. Remove as many barriers as possible that stop them working together.
  3. Set a few working practices
  4. Get out of their way.

Then, wait to see what emerges.

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