Sometimes, the lines between disciplines swirl into a beautiful fractal dance, as some things from organizational development bleed into organizational change and vice-versa. Facilitating Organization Change: Lessons from Complexity Science seeks to share what we know about complexity and the relative futility of trying to control every aspect of every interaction and instead teach how to shape and harness the waves of change in the organization.

Organizational Development

For an organization to change, it must adopt new behaviors, and those behaviors must be learned somehow. Organizational development is the fancy name for the training departments. It should be training infused with the understanding of organizational needs and the individual skills that are necessary to bring about that change.

Organizational development then builds the capacity for organizational change – and is informed by organizational change. Organizational change efforts expose the organizational needs and individual skills that the organizational development group needs to focus its efforts.

Without a capacity to educate and develop individuals, an organizational change effort is doomed before it starts.

Complex Adaptive Systems

Complex Adaptive Systems (CAS) are an awareness of the basics of systems thinking (see Thinking in Systems) and of the reality of wicked problems. (See Dialogue Mapping). At its heart is the acceptance that we cannot prescribe every interaction and every thought that someone might have. Instead, we must find ways to shape the system while minimizing the impact of unintended consequences. (See Diffusion of Innovations.)

Emergent, Irreversible, and Unpredictable

“Does the Flap of a Butterfly’s Wings in Brazil Set Off a Tornado in Texas?” set off the common understanding of chaos known as the Butterfly Effect. It’s Edward Lorenz’s 1972 article that helped us to realize that only some things are knowable and therefore only some things are predictable. This forms the basis for the complex nature of CAS.

CAS are reported to have emergent properties. That is, they have properties that cannot be predicted by the mere observation of the individual components. David Bohm said that an oak tree emerges from an acorn. The acorn is the aperture through which the oak tree comes into being. There’s no way – without prior knowledge – to know that something like an oak tree could some from something so tiny as an acorn. (See On Dialogue for more.)

CAS are also irreversible. That is, once they’ve moved forward and changed, they cannot be wound back to a prior point in time. Like Pandora’s box, nothing can put all the evils of the world back in once they’ve escaped. Irreversible mathematical approaches underpin all the public key infrastructure that we use to secure our communications and transactions. Irreversibility is a common if unseen part of our world.

Given these conditions, what hope does anyone have in changing their organization? The answer may just be music to your ears.

A Flock of Seagulls and Jazz

Not the band A Flock of Seagulls but rather a literal flock of seagulls has the properties of a complex adaptive system and the solutions that are common to addressing complex problems. A flock of seagulls isn’t a fixed set of birds, nor is there a single cohesive, informed vision or direction. Instead, the seagulls can operate with a few simple rules. Stay close – but not too close – to your neighbor and keep flying. These two rules can keep a flock of birds together. More elaborate rules may do things like allow geese to travel large distances, but these two rules are enough to keep a flock together.

The resulting behavior seems quite complex. The flock seems to adjust to the environment quickly – and is more able respond to threats than any command-and-control-everything, scripted kind of approach. The complexity of the response comes from several independent actors following simple rules.

Another example of a complex adaptive system is found in the improvisational jazz music that brings experienced musicians together to play with each other. No one knows where the piece is going when it starts, and they begin to improvise new bits together as they weave in and out of leading the music in new directions. Here, the rules are similarly simple: stay in sync with the group – but not too in sync – and keep playing.

The improvisational jazz ensemble will be good if they’re constantly moving the music from one thing to another. They’re simultaneously staying together and stretching the others in new directions.

Environmental Monitoring

Organizations must constantly scan their environments and adapt to respond to threats and opportunities. These have traditionally been done by a research and development or strategy group – or both. This approach requires that someone in the organization is able to see what is happening and propose a reasonable response. While this approach works, it’s not necessarily the most efficient.

What if instead of designated people scanning the environment for changes, everyone in the organization were engaged with environmental monitoring and could highlight changes in the environment too subtle for a person who is scanning everything to see? How much more effective can 1,000 part-time eyes be for seeing opportunities than two or four eyes that are dedicated to the task.

James Surowiecki in The Wisdom of Crowds explains how, by aggregating the estimates of many, we can get very accurate. Our individual biases generally give way to the collective clarity of reasonable answers. Whether it’s counting items in a jar or estimating the weight of a prized livestock animal, the more we can tap into everyone, the better our answers become.

Connected Intelligence

In the end, the recommendation for making organizational change work is by improving the communication, collaboration, and trust across the organization rather than attempting to script every move that everyone should have. Instead of trying to constrain and control the communication and the ways that people collaborate, the objective should be to increase communication, collaboration, and trust – in a sense, pouring gasoline on the flames of organizational chaos. It’s only in this way that we can truly move to Facilitating Organization Change.