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Working with

complexity
Revisiting our assumptions about innovation and growth, Martyn Brown
tries to make sense of anxiety, myth and our lack of control in the modern
world and advocates a radical complexity perspective.

Martyn Brown is a
business director in
Ashridge Consulting
working internationally
with innovative ways of

How do things actually work in organisations, and

Yet things never quite work out the way they are

how is this different from taken for granted and

planned. Unexpected things occur, some good and

deeply ingrained assumptions about how

some bad. If there is no absolute truth out there, if

organisations function? Years in consultancy,

we cannot predict the future, and things develop

executive education, and management and with a

and emerge in uncertain ways, how should we

business degree gave me thousands of slides and

think about organisational growth?

countless ideas on how organisations should work.


Yet something was missing.

organising and leading.

Email: martyn.brown
@ashridge.org.uk

www.ashridge.com/directions

The Ashridge Journal


Spring 2002

DIRECTIONS

Organisation guru Henry Mintzberg refers to an


article in Fortune which claimed that Lou Gerstner,

The starting point of this problem appears to be

since he joined IBM, had added $40 billion to the

our thinking and feelings about the issue of

companys share value. As Mintzberg put it: Wow.

control and trying to predict what should happen.

All by himself. Thats pretty amazing. Its pretty

Paraphrasing from the work of Dr Phil Streatfield,

childish, in fact.

unusual in that he is both a senior line manager

We seem to have an infantile belief in the cult of

and a past doctoral student in complexity, there is

leadership. The great white knight has to come in

a paradox of control. Business leaders are

and save everything. Many organisations are

supposed to be in control. When unexpected events

obsessed with the importance of executive

occur, leaders have to have things under control.

bonuses, and the idea that there is only one

Declaring that youre not in control is the worst

person in the organisation who can do things. And

thing you can do.

when things go wrong we have a deep-seated

Top managers are constrained by what society

desire to heap all the responsibility on one person

expects. Maintaining the appearance of being in

the leader, who should be in control. The leader

control of the situation is important.

takes all the praise and takes all the blame.

Organisations are expected to reflect some sort of

Leadership is an anxious rollercoaster ride. It

rationality in their actions. But, it is, I believe,

makes sense, therefore, to take stock and ask

more than that. As we become more aware of the

whether there is a different way of looking at

retrospective rationalisations of what well

things.

publicised companies are doing, and as business

The greatest anxiety of leaders and managers,

leaders, academics, gurus and consultancies spew

comes not just from the anxiety of not knowing,

forth more well polished, well presented and

and therefore in trying to control things, but in

plausible answers, we feel that we have to do

facing issues of free will, which in turn, lead to

something. We are driven to act.

heightened anxiety. The more of themselves we ask

Ashridge Business School UK - http://www.ashridge.org.uk

people to leave at the door, the less of themselves

uncertainty and the mess. We know that the ability

they become and the more prescriptions they

to innovate comes from skill in collaboration,

require, as Peter Kostenbaum and Peter Block put

from the interaction of people in an open, highly

it in Freedom and Accountability at Work. We have to

trusting way. We also know that innovation is

come to terms with the reality of our institutions

counter-intuitive to mainstream thinking; that it

mortality it wont go on forever it will lose its

cant be ordered into existence; that it cant be

vitality our work is a temporary structure. Talking

managed hierarchically because it involves the

this way is often frowned upon.

development of something new on the basis of

This is not surprising. Such observations run

trusting interaction, and a lot of hard work; that

completely counter to our deeply ingrained beliefs

innovative activity does not sit comfortably with

about organisations, how to lead them, how

the traditional ways of doing things; that over

innovation occurs and about their workings.

channelling innovative activities can thwart,


minimise or constrain them; that there is no

The search for growth through innovation

guarantee anything will work; that it needs


diversity, deviance and misunderstanding; that lots
of mistakes will be made before a workable new

Number one on any corporate agenda, is the need

idea emerges; that there is something about the

for top line growth. Under increasing shareholder

way things are done that is critical; and the how

pressure, most CEOs are faced with the pressure for

remains elusive.

revenue and share value growth. The days of

At the same time, the forces that aim to

re-engineering, downsizing and trimming the fat

maintain stability (e.g. planning, structuring and

may not have gone completely, but there has been

controlling), tend to be counter to the forces that

much painful learning about the downsides of these

innovation, initiative and experimentation require

activities. And the net gain from acquisitions is not

which produce instability.

always there. There is greater acceptance of the need


for top line growth through innovation, probably
through some sort of path-breaking activity.

A common situation

Strategy guru Gary Hamel sees innovation as


The whole issue of vision, and strategic direction is

the quality movement was in the last 50.

key. I was recently asked to facilitate a discussion,

Companies should discard their business plans

for the executive of a major company. They wanted

and develop the capability for continual, radical

help in agreeing on a durable vision for the

innovation. Hamel knocks the idea of planning

company. On questioning this, it seemed to me

being able to create something new, seeing strategy

that the real reason for this was that managers

as more subversive, rule breaking and revolutionary.

wanted greater clarity on the vision, and what was

This revolutionary zeal is directed at freeing the

to be expected from them.

process from the tyranny of the past, whose

The executives decided to meet to clarify the

custodians are top managers. Change, he claims,

vision and inspiring goals were sought to motivate

almost never starts at the top. The creativity comes

and excite staff. Several executives had struck on

from new voices, new perspectives, new passions

an article by a couple of US gurus that strongly

and strategic conversations about the future.

advocated this activity, based on the research

At the heart of the search for innovation is a

conducted for a best-selling book. The executive

potentially fatal paradox. While everyone wants

team alone would do the work. This was not

innovation, few will tolerate the ambiguity, the

intended to be exclusive or command and control,

Ashridge Business School UK - http://www.ashridge.org.uk

5
DIRECTIONS

critical to business success in the next 50 years as

www.ashridge.com/directions

The Ashridge Journal


Spring 2002

Working with
complexity
but to help the process of clarification, motivation

consideration of different ideas, angles and

and building understanding.

perspectives.

At first sight it is an extremely plausible model.

In todays fast moving, complex and uncertain

The authors of the best-seller are highly credible

world vision can be unhelpful. Vision can just be

with strong business school links. Their long-term

an extrapolation of past knowns, or can preclude

research is based on some of the most successful

changes to it. The argument goes that if your world

US companies. Lots of companies use, or have

is perfectly predictable then this is acceptable. If

been influenced by the model which is very clear

the inference is that the future is predictable, then

and prescriptive it tells you what you can do, to

it is logical to work back from the future, which

produce a vision.

may restrict your range of possibilities and may

The vision model was accepted as a way to meet

reduce your ability to respond to changes and

the need. At no time was the assumption, about

exploit new opportunistic opportunities along the

whether vision was helpful, or even necessary,

way. The expressed vision may serve to silence

seriously questioned.

your innovators those looking for new angles,


ideas and markets. The vision may also take no

account of emergence of opportunities.

Can you really build a vision and is it


important?

Yet mainstream business thinking emphasises


the importance of vision. Its almost a creed.
Popular books, academics and consultants

Certainly you can facilitate a discussion of an

continue to advocate its use.

executive team to produce such a statement. But

The basic problem with vision is that it

will it, if communicated in an appropriate way,

reinforces dependency. It is a taken for granted

help to clarify the situation and remedy the

form of control which creates:

anxious feelings of staff?


This leaves companies with the question about
what a vision is all about. We know that we cannot
predict the future. We know that financial analysts
would prefer it if companies could. We know that
staff tell companies that if only we had greater
clarity of strategic direction/vision, they would
perform better. And they see managers as
incompetent if they dont offer such clarity.
Whereas having an inspiring view (i.e. vision) of

Dependency on:

what is right and wrong in this organisation


what the leader wants me to do, and not do
how I will be assessed, and therefore
remunerated, and promoted (or not)

the future, may well build a great enthusiasm for

the degree to which I can be myself, and use

achieving something greater than me, and which I

my unique talents, without feeling I will be

want to be involved in, it assumes that this will

punished for this.

be sufficient. Experience suggests that a much

www.ashridge.com/directions

The Ashridge Journal


Spring 2002

DIRECTIONS

more likely reaction ranges from apathy to

If we look at Virgin, there seems to be no

derision. Firstly, people tend to look at the quality

assumption about what business the company

and substance of the vision statement, and are left

should or shouldnt be in. The culture is one of

(in the main) with a feeling of its inadequacy.

why not, rather than why.

They have done a poor job. Secondly, the vision

The tell them versus dont tell them dilemma is

process is seen to be lacking lacking in

central to all this. If you tell staff what to do, they

involvement, lacking in time and opportunity for

may either welcome it, or be sceptical. Often, you

Ashridge Business School UK - http://www.ashridge.org.uk

may not actually want to tell them what to do, but

Culture

can

become

the

overriding,

you feel it is important to clarify the general need,

autonomous, harmonious whole to which good

and the expectations, on the basis of being

people must conform. Individuals participate and

helpful, and aiding motivation.

submit. Participation can mean letting go of self-

Not telling them involves understanding that if

interests and submerging oneself in the

people can wrestle with the problem, feel they have

transcendental whole. The selfish aspect is thought

ownership for it, do something about it, and maybe

to bring opposition and conflict, whereas

deny

managers

participation in the whole leaves all conflict

encouraging/allowing them to do it then this is

behind. The danger is of mindless following, and

vital for organisational growth and survival. In a

an idealisation of human behaviour. This can

sense, and where it works best, it is near invisible,

divert attention from what people are actually

and not subject to company edicts, strategies and

doing, and focus on some idealisation. It can also

plans. Something that is vital for the organisation is

drive out difference, deviation, and therefore the

not under the control of the CEO or the top team.

likelihood of emergent novelty.

Towards the realities the unspokens of

the

importance

of

top

False bravado and manufactured optimism

organisations
Whilst we know that exciting an organisation, by
whatever means, has huge advantages, it also has
big problems.
There is the danger of false bravado whereby the
organisation encourages manufactured optimism.
The dilemma of public celebration and private
realism is rarely discussed or understood. Private
thoughts are often held back as a defence against
failure, and against accusations of disloyalty.
Cultures of unreality can be created. If they are

At an organisational level:

we know we cant predict the future, but we


(in effect) continue to try to do so.

companies rarely move into the future as their


long-term plans describe.

the plans and other procedures simply mask

fearful of the repercussions of speaking out it is

what were actually doing the messy process

not surprising so many managers position

of interaction and politics.

themselves as can-do people. Reclaiming freedom


is a very important, yet vital activity for

strategic plans are mainly defences against the


anxiety of not quite knowing what were

every person.
Paraphrasing author Doug Griffin, the
assumption is that leaders are meant to set out a
vision, an idealised end-state for the organisation,
and then to empower people, that is, drive
3

leadership down through the hierarchy. This

doing.

if organisations dont move according to


plans, then they presumably move because of
the way people interact in groups.

allows others to share in a kind of mystical union.

is related to this mystical whole rather than to


the everyday contingencies of ordinary life
in organisations.

At the level of individual managers:

people look to me/us, for leadership thats


what were/ theyre paid for.

Ashridge Business School UK - http://www.ashridge.org.uk

7
DIRECTIONS

The ethical and moral responsibility of individuals

www.ashridge.com/directions

The Ashridge Journal


Spring 2002

Working with
complexity

Im terrified Ill be found out as inadequate,


ineffective, as not up to job.

nature), there has been a natural human tendency


to apply it, metaphorically, to the world of
organisations. So many now describe organisations

Im a leader; therefore I must inspire my

not as machines (with all that that infers in terms of

people.

leaders as mechanics, re-engineering, blueprints


etc), but as living systems or organisms. This has led

my people are anxious therefore I must

to great excitement, and the advocacy of different

reduce their anxiety.

approaches that are far from mainstream thinking


and assumptions. A plethora of books that attempt

to apply complexity thinking to organisations have

How do people really work understanding

followed. Influential recent books by Meg Wheatley,

complexity

Arie de Geus, Richard Pascale, Peter Senge, and


others, have all to one degree or another through
4

The influence of the Santa Fe Institute (SFI) in

closeness to the science, attempted to apply the

thinking about the emergent sciences of complexity

lessons to the world of organisations.

over many years has shifted our thinking toward how

Most tend to talk about the new theories of

things may work in organisations, rather than how

complexity, self-organisation and emergence by, in

they are supposed to.

the main, presenting existing views (e.g. in terms of

Scientists from many fields have been working

control, design, simple rules and regularity) in new

together to produce a body of thinking about

jargon with the danger of it becoming yet another

finding patterns in the apparently haphazard

management fad. It is mainly a systems thinking

phenomena in the universe (whether from the

perspective.

physical, biological, economics or mathematical

In contrast, a few voices like Ralph Stacey,

world) and trying to understand how apparent

Doug Griffin, Phil Streatfield and Patricia Shaw

chaos has, in fact, patterns of unexpected order.

take a more radical complexity approach.5 They try

Central to the recent thinking of those interested

to relate these profound influences more directly

in studying complexity, has been the idea of

to the world of organisations, through the use of

complex adaptive systems. Over recent years, the

organisational theory, relational psychology,

genuine excitement of those researching, and

sociology and social constructionism. Whilst

thinking about the implications of this work has

noticing the dominance of systems thinking in

seen the rapid growth of attempts to apply it to the

conventional complexity applications, they argue

world of organisations.

for the inclusion of humans in our understanding

Although far from mainstream thinking, the

of complex networks that, as leaders or

conventional complexity perspective is that one

managers, we cannot stand outside them and

can describe the natural and physical world (of

objectively observe or direct them. Rather than

garden ponds, termite colonies and the cosmos) in

describing organisations as complex adaptive

terms of complex adaptive systems. The idea is

systems, metaphorically lifting from science, they

that complex adaptive systems consist of

use the phrase complex responsive processes

independent but dynamically interacting agents

of relating.

that create results that cannot be predicted by an


analysis of the cause and effect relationships. They
emerge, often in unexpected ways.
www.ashridge.com/directions

The Ashridge Journal


Spring 2002

DIRECTIONS

Towards the edge of chaos

Given the power of this exciting and potentially


transforming research (a lot of it biological in

The problem with describing an organisation as

Ashridge Business School UK - http://www.ashridge.org.uk

a system (rather than a process) is one of talking

i n C i s c o . Yo u ve g o t t o h ave p e o p l e w h o

about it as a thing. Organisations arent things,

challenge you. He adds that they also have to

let alone living things, they are processes of

b e a b l e t o p l ay o n t h e t e a m , l i k e n i n g h i s

communication and joint action. Thinking of

managers to a flock of wild ducks. I dont

the whole, outside the experience of local

expect us to fly in formation. I just want us to

interaction in the living present is a distraction

go south at the same time of the year, and when

from what actually happens.

its time to go north, to go north.

The core idea is that people are working


together to create, and continuously recreate
what we call reality with no outside control. If

Accepting failure

we believe in emergence and the possibility for


Firms that are good accept a high failure rate, they

day-to-day, self-organising interaction of people,

anticipate that failure is going to come and there

that this possibility occurs.

are certain things they dont do. They dont get

Complexity thinking suggests that at the edge

obsessed with blaming individuals and looking for

of chaos a system can produce novel emergent

scapegoats. They dont use it as a reason to create a

forms with critical rates of information flow,

culture of fear.

connectivity of agents and diversity. But too

At Southwest Airlines, shortfalls in performance

much can create overwhelming disorganisation.

such as flight delays or slow turnarounds are seen

Many conventional complexity writers see the

as team problems to be solved by team discussion,

idea of edge of chaos as equated with crisis.

action and ideas rather than scapegoating.

They see the manager as standing outside the

Southwest has the best on-time record and it turns

sys t e m a n d p u s h i n g o r n u d g i n g i t i n t o

round planes faster than anyone elses.

instability, disturbance and crisis, putting

People can only engage in this when the pattern

people under more stress so theyll be motivated

and quality of their relationships provides good

to change and thus unleash the power of self-

enough holding of the anxiety of facing the

organisation.

unknown together. Too much crisis and stress

The more radical perspective sees the edge of

closes people and their relating properties down. It

chaos very differently. This emphasises the

needs to both safe enough and exciting enough,

dynamic

without being terrifyingly stressful.

of

f r e e - f l ow i n g ,

spontaneous

conversation, not stuck in repetitive patterns

Strategy becomes the emergent process of

that block change. A healthy organisation

actively participating in the conversations around

c o n s t a n t l y r e s p o n d s, s o a s t o s u r v i ve a n d

important emergent issues in a sense strategic

prosper.

direction is understood in hindsight, with insights

Diversity of people, ideas and outlooks is a

into the patterning, rather than with foresight. Its

key requirement for the potential novelty to

not step by step reasoning from assumptions

emerge. Innovative transformation requires non-

about the future, in some linear cause and effect

ave r a g e, d e v i a n t , m ave r i c k , e c c e n t r i c a n d

way, but in relying on using qualitative patterns to

perhaps unpopular behaviour. This links back to

reason by analogy and intuition.

H a m e l s i d e a s a b o u t n e w vo i c e s, n e w

Not only is the long-term future of the

perspectives, and new passions. It also links to

organisation inherently unpredictable, but its

Cisco, where there are healthy numbers of

unknowable. Its not that its just difficult to

mavericks and non-conformists. As CEO John

forecast accurately, its impossible to do so.

Chambers puts it: Youve got to have mavericks


Ashridge Business School UK - http://www.ashridge.org.uk

9
DIRECTIONS

transformation to occur, then it is here in the

www.ashridge.com/directions

The Ashridge Journal


Spring 2002

Working with
complexity

The managers role seen differently

to over-structure it, define in advance key outputs


and deliverables and prescribe the models or key

As Phil Streatfield puts it: Managing really is an

inputs. Where the good enough holding of anxiety,

endless task of engaging in new conversations and

not the attempt to completely remove it gives the

opportunities with all the anxieties and

potential

uncertainties that they bring.

transformation.

for

novelty,

innovation

or

The key argument is the paradox of

But the lack of a clear structure and desired

simultaneously being in charge and not in control.

outputs can increase the sense of loss of control

Yet mainstream thinking says that, surely,

which increases anxiety levels. Too much anxiety

someone must be in charge.

can shut things down and lead to heated

If mainstream thinking is that the movement of

accusations that youve lost control which in

an organisation into the future is the movement of

turn lead to heightened anxiety. Too little inhibits

the whole system from the present to the future,

the search for new patterns, with insufficient

then the essential role of management is to

energy to create movement. We had an enjoyable

control this movement, to objectively observe it,

time but with hindsight things are about the

and analyse it rationally to be able to design it, or

same. Good enough anxiety is therefore the

act upon its leverage points. Variation from plan

source of the energy that is inevitable as we try to

will therefore result in some course correction.

make sense of what is happening and our place

Its misleading to equate management with

within it. All this takes time, tenacity and courage.

being in control, because this is only one pole in

The quality and depth of the strategic or other

the paradoxical experience of managing. The key is

conversations therefore appear to be a key factor

Paradox of Control in

courage not the heroic type, but the courage to

in the evolution of an organisation. It also sustains

Organizations, Routledge.

get involved in participatory creativity with others

a sense of organisation and individual identity.

2. Hamel, G. (2000).

in the construction of meaning, despite not being

Rather than looking for managers to be in

in control the courage to live with paradox and

control, a key ability is to participate creatively in

the anxiety generated by potential loss of meaning.

the forming of transient meaning, enabling all

The key skill of management and leadership

staff to continue living with the anxiety generated

therefore becomes the skill of participating

by change. Working paradoxically with

effectively with others in the processes in which

simultaneous order and disorder, understanding

new meaning potentially emerges, and during

and misunderstanding, consensus and conflict. To

which the participants may be potentially

be both inspiring and humble at the same time.

Organisational Dynamics: The

changed. The emergent pattern of evolution arises

Inspiring, not through brilliant foresight or vision,

Challenge of Complexity, 3rd

in self-organising interactions and creates a sense

but through courageously offering a different

of meaning, order or control in the midst of

perspective of possibilities not certainties from the

R, Griffin D and Shaw P.

uncertainty and anxious feelings of not feeling in

perpetual construction of the future in the living

(2000). Complexity and

control. The mainstream perspective would just

present. And doing a good enough holding of the

see this as incompetent. If youre in a mess, the

anxiety this produces. Humility through active

Routledge; Stacey, R.

top team or someone, maybe you, must be

participative engagement, not knowing the

(2001). Complex Responsive

incompetent.

answers and accepting their own frailty in the face

FURTHER READING
1. Streatfield, P. (2001).The

Leading the Revolution,


Harvard Business School
Press.
3. Griffin, D. (2002). The
Emergence of Leadership,
Routledge.
4. www.santafe.edu
5. Stacey, R. (2000).
Strategic Management &

Edition, Financial
Times/Prentice Hall; Stacey

Management: Fad or Radical


Challenge to Systems Thinking,

Processes in Organisations,
Learning and Knowledge
Creation, Routledge.

www.ashridge.com/directions

The Ashridge Journal


Spring 2002

DIRECTIONS

10

These anxieties produce a powerful force that

of the expectations and projections of others about

may inadvertently actually block change. From my

being in control and all knowing. Accepting and

consulting experience some of the most powerful

being comfortable with the reality that we might

interventions are when the spaces for the

be in charge but at the same time definitely not in

interactive possibility are held, without the need

control.

Ashridge Business School UK - http://www.ashridge.org.uk