Complexity and uncertainty

February 9, 2010

Our lives are increasingly complex, whether we consider our private lives, our families, or the organizations we relate to. It is impossible to know for sure what will happen when we make changes in our lives.  Whenever we make a decision or take some action, there will be consequences. These consequences are extremely seldom under our control, although we would like to think this is not so.

One of the most common practices in management is planning. Yet organizational reality often turns out to be different from the plans that are made. Unpredictability is a property of all complex, nonlinear interaction. As this corresponds with all human interaction, organizations could well be characterized by intrinsic unpredictability that cannot be removed.

And if that is the case, then it is perfectly understandable that our plans are never materialized exactly as we thought. Traditional management science has however tried to build on certainty through a strong belief in rationality and the capability for optimization.

Empirical evidence is making it very clear that this is not so, pointing to the conclusion that we can never know anything with certainty. Nonlinear interaction always yields unpredictable change. If we wanted to create an alternative to mainstream economic theory and leadership/management, it should then be based on “bounded rationality”, uncertainty and complexity.

When encountering a problem, or developmental challenge, we often ask the question: “What should we do?”  But if plans seldom produce what is planned, creating a new plan, to substitute for the one that did not produce what was planned, might not be the cleverest thing to do. One of the things that people get asked to do in management development programmes is to identify the three new behaviors that they are going to adopt on Monday morning. If we really want to change things, we should instead ask the question: “What is it that we are doing here, now?”

Thank you Ralph Stacey, Doug Griffin, Herbert Simon and Henry Mintzberg

One Response to “Complexity and uncertainty”

  1. Katri Saarikivi Says:

    I have gotten stuck on the brain metaphor and shall stretch it for all its worth here.
    I really like the idea of developing management towards not acting as the executive function or
    even metacognition of the organization, which should rightly be attributes of individuals in the
    organization, but creating awareness.
    Exchange of information is a continuous process but meaningless without awareness. Consciousness or awareness (are they the same thing?) is like a low hum that permeates all funtion and ties it into existence. Creating awareness in the organization creates meaning and solidifies the existence of the organization. An aware organization is
    strong and can act more profoundly in the present, it can react more quickly and correctly to
    what happens around it. It seems that leadership is to blame for so much nowadays – from the lack of motivation of employees to even problems with their health. When people are helped become aware and when
    an organization becomes aware the only result can be increased self-directedness and fulfilment.


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