Eberhard Ross – Starlings
I hear the idea that we are working in complex adaptive systems a lot, often implying that by setting simple rules rather than being prescriptive or controlling, leaders will be somehow more likely to achieve their intended ends.
However, for me, the logic in this thinking is the wrong way around. Let me explain.
If we were to take the classical example of flocking birds, it is remarkable that we can replicate the sky patterns we see on summer evenings by programming digital units to follow 3 “simple” (non-linear) rules (the Boids simulation).
The difference between flocks of birds and organizations, however, is that in the bird-world, no-one is telling the birds to follow those rules – there is no chief bird officer with a goal trying to get the other birds to do something specific. So, we can describe the activity of (real) flocks of birds as CASs because we find that there are simple rules that are being ‘followed’ – BUT the key thing for me is that these rules haven’t been designed. Rather, they have emerged in the interplay of the various appetites we can imagine that real birds have.
The corollary for thinking about organisations is that if we look at the patterns of interaction or behaviour in what we are doing together, while we might find some simple rules that people appear to be operating by – we might call these values or something else that represents the basis of conscious or unconscious meaning and decision making – these are unlikely to have been designed; rather they have emerged in the interplay of our competing needs, both in work and elsewhere.
Moreover, these kinds of rules probably can’t ever be designed or implemented. Partly, this is because the kind of general statements in which these rules might be articulated (so they are simple) are so infinitely interpretable that what they come to mean in practice might be very different from the original intention.
Further, even if we are able to articulate the apparent rules in play, noticing and naming them changes them because, unlike birds or their digital counterparts in the Boids mode, humans have infinite capacity for unpredictable and novel responses to what they encounter, including to the event that they have encountered it before.
So what help does the CAS analogy give us? I think it helps us think about the observable patterns or interaction we notice (‘culture’, or what you will) as a way of taking about contextual social norms. We might then try to start articulating what those seem to be and seeing how these apparent rules evolve, including in response to their being named, or how new rules emerge, in response to interventions or initiatives.
For leaders, this can’t be a ‘do once’ activity – it is an ongoing process that has to change as the patterns of interaction change as humans consciously and unconsciously responsd to what they encounter.