Complexity

April 27, 2014

The way we want to make sense of the world around us often has to do with causality. The question we ask is what caused “it” to happen. The mainstream approach is that an arrow, or arrows, can be drawn. There is a variable, the “it”, that happened, that is now to be explained. In scientific study this variable is regarded as dependent. An independent variable, or variables, that cause it are then sought. Causality means that X causes Y. If there is more X there will also be more Y. This is the if-then model of management. In organizations, a familiar explanation for success is that a particular manager or a particular culture caused it.

But there is something significant happening today. Scholars are increasingly pointing out the fact that this view of the relationship between cause and effect is much too simplistic and leads to a very limited or even faulty understanding of what is really going on.

Cybernetics recognized a much more complicated causality. In this kind of system the arrows, the links, between cause and effect can be distant in terms of time or place. The system can be highly sensitive to some changes but very insensitive to some others. For the first time, it was understood that it is a non-linear world.

Complexity challenges the assumption of earlier systems theories that movement in time can be predictable in the sense that X causes Y, or that the movement follows some archetypes. The modelling differs significantly from all previous systems models.

Complexity means a different theory of causality.

Helsinki InstituteThe most important insight is that it is often not possible to identify specific causes that yield specific outcomes. Almost indefinite number of variables influence what is going on. The links between cause and effect are lost because the tiniest overlooked, or unknown, variable can escalate into a major force. And afterwards you can’t trace back, you can’t find the exact butterfly that flapped its wings. There is no trail that leads you to an independent variable.

The future of a complex system is emerging through perpetual creation. Complexity is a movement in time that is both knowable and unknowable. Uncertainty is a basic feature of all complex systems. It is a dynamic in time that is called paradoxically stable instability or unstable stability. Although the specific paths are unpredictable, there is a pattern. The pattern is never exactly the same, but there is always some similarity to what has happened earlier.

In the end it is about the combination and interaction of the elements that are present and how absolutely all of them participate in co-creating what is happening. None of the elements cause the end result independently. From this standpoint a lighted match does not cause a fire. Rather, the fire took place because of a particular combination of elements of which the lighted match was just one. In the same way, a rude remark does not start a fight. The argument starts as a combination of an offensive remark and a coarse response.

The big new idea is to reconfigure agency in a way that brings complex relationships into the center. The task today is to see action within these relationships.

Complex relationships cannot be understood through spatial metaphors such as process maps or network charts. Unhelpful or wrong models and metaphors are often a big obstacle to moving our thinking forward after the technological constraints are gone.

We need to move towards temporality, to understand what is happening in time.

An organization is not a whole consisting of parts. There is no inside and outside. An organization is a continuously developing or stagnating pattern in time. Industrial management was a particular pattern based on specific assumptions about communication, causality and human psychology.

Recent developments in psychology/sociology have shown that human agency is not located or stored in an individual, contrary to what mainstream economics would have us believe. The individual mind arises continuously in communication between people.

The focus of industrial management was on the division of labor and the design of vertical/horizontal communication channels. The focus should now be on cooperation and emergent interaction based on transparency, interdependence and responsiveness.

Looking at communication, not through it, what we are creating together.

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Thank you Ralph Stacey, Ken Gergen, Doug Griffin, Jim Wilk, Marko Ahtisaari and Katri Saarikivi

The Social Graph of Work

March 31, 2014

The approach of the industrial era to getting something done is first to create an organization. If something new and different needs to be done, a new and different kind of organizational form needs to be put into effect. Changing the lines of accountability and reporting is the epitome of change in firms. When a new manager enters the picture, the organizational outline is typically changed into a “new” organization. But does changing the organization really change what is done? Does the change actually change anything?

An organization is metaphorically still a picture of walls defining who is inside and who is outside a particular box. Who is included and who is excluded. Who “we” are and who “they” are.

This way of thinking was acceptable in repetitive work where it was relatively easy to define what needed to be done and by whom as a definition of the quantity of labor and quality of capabilities.

As a result, organizational design created two things: the process chart and reporting lines, the hierarchy.

1In creative, knowledge based work it is increasingly difficult to know the best mix of people, capabilities and tasks in advance. In many firms reporting routines are the least important part of communication. Much more flexibility than the process maps allow is needed. Interdependence between peers involves, almost by default, crossing boundaries. The walls seem to be in the wrong position or in the way, making work harder to do. What, then, is the use of the organizational theatre when it is literally impossible to define the organization before we actually do something?

What if the organization really should be an ongoing process of emergent self-organizing? Instead of thinking about the organization, let’s think about organizing.

If we take this view we don’t think about walls but we think about what we do and how groups are formed around what is actually going on or what should be going on. The new management task is to make possible the very easy and very fast emergent formation of groups and to make it as easy as possible for the best contributions from the whole network to find the applicable tasks, without knowing beforehand who knows.

The focal point in organizing is not the organizational entity one belongs to, or the manager one reports to, but the reason that brings people together. What purposes, activities and tasks unite us? What is the cause of interdependence and group formation?

It is a picture of an organization without walls, rather like contextual magnetic fields defined by gradually fading rings of attraction.

Instead of the topology of organizational boxes that are still often the visual representation of work, the architecture of work is a live social graph of networked interdependence and accountability. One of the most promising features of social technologies is the easy and efficient group formation that makes this kind of organizing possible for the first time!

It is just our thinking that is in the way of bringing down the walls.

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BlogikuvaWe have been studying companies’ connections and disconnections for more than twenty years and have worked inside a huge number of them. Across all this research, common themes have emerged and intensified during the past few years: good communication in the era of the Internet and the new interactive tools does not mean any more that companies should listen carefully to their customers or that leaders should talk clearly with their subordinates. The linear view of communication, the movement of messages or sharing of content between people is giving way to a totally new understanding of what interaction, and work, are all about.

The first emerging theme is that communication is in fact a process of continuous coordination and knowledge creation. Knowledge is not shared as contents, but arises in action. Knowledge is never transmitted from one mind to another. It is a change from the movement of messages to a joint movement of thought. The future and viability of an organization depend on this process.

Economics still makes the assumption that individuals, the agents, as they are called, operate autonomously, separately from the influences of others. When choosing something, making a decision from a set of alternatives, the agent compares the attributes of the alternatives and selects the one that corresponds to her preferences. It is a world where independent individuals carefully weigh up the costs and benefits of any particular course of action.

However, scientists have emphasized the limits of our understanding. An important point is that these limits apply to everyone. They apply to politicians, to central bankers and to top executives of multinational companies. John Maynard Keynes once wrote that we have, as a rule, only the vaguest idea of the consequences of our actions. Herbert Simon and Stuart Kauffman on the other hand have argued that the number of future paths open to us at any point in time is so vast that it makes no sense at all to speak of the best or optimal decision.  But we still think the world works like a predictable machine operated by rational agents

Behavior that does not follow an economist’s definition is often called irrational, but it may be that in a world of ubiquitous networks, a proliferation of choice and an abundance of information, the economic definition of rationality has itself become outdated and irrational.

We need a new model of rational behavior and a new understanding of how we make decisions. We need a new decision model!

The second emerging theme is that the assumption that people make choices in isolation, that they do not adopt opinions simply because other people have them, is no longer sustainable. The choices people make, their buying decisions and their political views, are directly influenced by other people. That is to say that we construct our world together in communication. Network scientists such as Duncan Watts and Mark Granowetter have proved that the world comes to be what it is for us in our relationships. In the end it all depends on the company you keep and the conversations you have.

This leads to the importance of emphasizing relations instead of reductionism and separations. Reductionism means that the organization is understood as being split from its environment and one functional team is seen as being separate from another function. The worst mistake we make as a result of reductionist thinking may be that we assess and reward employees as if they were disconnected from other employees.

Links and communication are at the centre of organizational life. Depending on the quantity of interdependent links and the quality of communication, the organization lives or dies. Work is interaction between interdependent people.

The third emerging theme is that communication creates patterns. Words become what they are through the responsive actions of the people taking part. The relational view means in practice that if a conversation goes badly, it is always a joint achievement. On the other side, a conversation can only be successful if both participants join in and make it so as Ken Gergen points out. In management, it means that there is nothing one person alone can do to be a good manager. Good ideas don’t count as good ideas, if other people don’t treat them as such.

New leadership is about an awareness of creative and destructive patterns and having the ability to influence what is going on. In a creative pattern, the participants build on each other’s contributions. The conversation, thinking and action are in a process of forward movement.

Destructive patterns are the most harmful in terms of organizational viability. These patterns don’t contain forward movement but running in circles. People and organizations get stuck! People slow down in bitterness and silence, or even to the breaking of the link. The most destructive patterns often begin subtly, but unless they are worked with soon, not only will relations suffer but the whole network will deteriorate.

Being aware of the patterns includes being aware of the roles that we play. Whenever we speak, we do two things: we subtly define ourselves and define the other. Does the speaker in a company context define herself as one who can talk down to others or as an equal? What we say is important to the viability of the organization but the way we say it can be equally important. Talking down or talking up between people creates an asymmetry that leads to bad decisions and inefficient movement of thought.

The machine metaphor meant that we tended to think that the people “above” us have significant power. They are in control. We thus talked up to them. They should decide. They should do things for us because they were the ones who were responsible, not us. Knowing that they are not in control raises the question of a need for a new distribution of responsibility. Bottom-up as a metaphor is as harmful as top-down when the common goal is resilience.

There is no aspect of work or leadership that takes place outside the realm of communication. Human agency is not located or stored in an individual, contrary to mainstream economics. The individual mind arises continuously in communication between people.

Being skilfully present in the forward movement of thought and relational action is the new meaning of being rational.

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Thank you Ralph Stacey, Doug Griffin, Ken Gergen, Marcial Losada, Katri Saarikivi and Paul Ormerod

Links: “Resilient Performance in an Age of Uncertainty” “Possibilianism” “Stanley Milgram and the uncertainty of evil” “The fluid core“. “On functional stupidity and trust“. “Tulipmania” “Neuroeconomics

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Many people say that open source software developers have the most efficient ecosystems for learning that have ever existed. What is it, then, that is so special about the way developers do things? Is there something that could act as a model for the future of work, or the future of education?

What takes place in open source projects is typically not the result of choices made by a few powerful people that others implement. Instead, what emerges is the consequence of the choices of all involved in the whole interconnected network, “the connective“, as Stowe Boyd puts it. What happens does not follow a plan or a design. It is about self-organization.

The problem is that we believe that the unit of work is the independent individual. Self-organization is then thought to mean that individuals organize themselves without the direction of managers. People think that it is a form of empowerment, or a do-whatever-you-like environment, in which anybody can choose freely what to do. But connected, interdependent people can never simply do what they like. If this happened, they would very soon be excluded. Interdependence means that individuals constrain and enable each other all the time. Cooperating individuals are not independent.

Inside companies the logic is thought to be different. According to the present approach to management, organizational outcomes are first chosen by a few top executives and then implemented by the rest. Here, planning and enactment of the plans are two separate domains that follow a linear causality from plans to actions. From the perspective of open source development, organizational outcomes emerge in a way that is never just determined by a few people, but arises in the ongoing local interaction of all the people taking part. For example GitHub “encourages individuals to fix things and own those fixes just as much as they own the projects they start”.

Here, emergence means that there is no linear causal link from a plan to the execution of the plan. What emerges is, paradoxically, predictable and unpredictable, knowable and unknowable at the same time. This does not mean dismissing planning as pointless, but means that the long-term future always contains surprises.

Emergence is often understood as things which just happen and there is nothing we can do about it. But emergence means the exact opposite. The patterns that emerge do so precisely because of what everybody is doing, and not doing. It is what many, many local interactions produce. This is what self-organization means. Each of us is forming plans and making decisions about our next steps all the time. “What each of us does affects others and what they do affects each of us.”

No one can step outside this interaction to design interaction, because designs and plans exist only in the ways people make sense of them and take them up in their local situations.

Learning organizations cannot be understood through spatial metaphors such as process maps or organizational charts. We need to move towards temporality to understand what is happening in time. An organization is not a whole consisting of parts. An organization is a pattern in time. Sometimes these patterns get stuck, or they are repetitive and dull; sometimes they are rich, inspiring, and full of energy. What we can learn from the open source ecosystems is that developing things always means developing people. “All learning is open and public, leaving tracks that others can follow.” Doing and learning then mean the same thing.

The biggest change in thinking that is now needed is that the unit of work is not the independent individual, but interdependent people in interaction.

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Thank you David Weinberger, Ken Gergen, Ralph Stacey and Doug Griffin

More on the subject: the GitHub generation, Sugata Mitra. Video: “Knowledge in a MOOC” Steve Denning on complexity. The mundanity of excellence.

I took part in a high-level workshop on the future of work. One of the questions raised was: “If machines can replace people’s minds in knowledge work as well as machines replaced their muscles in manual work, what will ultimately be left for human beings to do? Are we going to run out of jobs?” My answer was that this concern is based on a totally incorrect assumption. Working life does not consist of a finite number of problems and opportunities to which the human mind and human effort can be applied.

The good news, or the bad news, is that the challenges that confront us are unlimited. Every solution to a problem generates several new problems. No matter how many are solved, there will always be an infinite number ahead of us. Although modern technology has reduced the number of things that in the past had to be dealt with by human beings, it increases the complexity of the challenges that require our attention now and in the future.

Technology does change what people should be doing and how organizations come to be what they are. This is why we need to revisit and rethink our conceptualizations of work.

When the Industrial Revolution began, the dominant Newtonian worldview meant that what was happening in the world was thought to be understandable without any reference to the environment in which things happened. Physical laws described what things following a linear, rational causality would do. The dominant view was that there are no significant uncertainties, or unknowns, messing things up. Most academic experiments were constructed accordingly, with the effect of the environment being eliminated. The aim was often to study the effect of one known variable on another.

Business enterprises were consequently thought of as machines. Enterprises conceptualized as machines, like all machines, didn’t have a will of their own. They were serving the intentions of their creator, the owner. The principal purpose was to obtain a return on the investment. Employees were, of course, known to be human beings, but their personal intentions were seen as irrelevant. People were retained as long as they were needed to fulfill the intentions of the employers.

KonserttiThe biological, systemic conceptualization, although it was not always called that, then replaced the notion of an enterprise as a machine. One reason for this was the changing structure of ownership. When a firm went public, its creator disappeared. Owners were seen as anonymous, and too numerous to be reachable. The Industrial Revolution turned into the managerial revolution we are still living through today.

The managerial revolution changed the thinking around the purpose. Like any biological entity, the enterprise now had fitness and longevity as raisons d’être of its very own. Profit came to be thought of as a means, not an end in itself. Success came to be measured by growth. It was seen as essential, just like in nature.

The systemic view was a profound change in thinking compared with the mechanistic view. A biological organism is not goal-oriented in the sense of serving external purposes or moving towards an external goal. The movement is toward a more fit or more mature form of itself in a particular environment. An organism can adapt, but cannot choose to be something else.

But humans are creative and humans can choose.

Things are changing again. The sciences of uncertainty and complexity have helped us to understand that organizations are patterns of interaction between human beings. These patterns emerge in the interplay of the intentions, choices and actions of absolutely all the parties involved. No one party can plan or control the interplay of these intentions. But even without being able to plan exact outcomes, or control what others do, people accomplish great things together.

The thing is that people can only accomplish their work in the necessarily uncertain and ambiguous conditions through ongoing conversations with each other. This is why the next revolution is dawning.

The social revolution is about deeply rethinking the value of human effort. An increase in value can only occur if the parts of a “system” can do something in interaction that they cannot do alone. Social business may be more about complementarity than collaboration.

An enterprise that is conceptualized as a social business should serve the purposes of all its constituents. It should enable its parts to participate in the selection of both the ends and the means that are relevant to them personally. If the parts of a system are treated as purposeful, they must have the freedom to choose and to act. This means that the defining characteristic of a social business is the increased variety of behaviors that is available. It is not necessarily about common goals or shared purposes any more.

The way our organizations are conceptualized has a great effect on what people do, and what they do affects the way organizations are conceptualized. Enterprises have always consisted of people who have ideas, intentions, creativity and purposes of their own.

This, in the end, is what makes people different from machines.

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Background:

Kevin Kelly: “dream up new work that matters”. The Atlantic: “The Robot Will See You Now”. Russell Ackoff on Systems Thinking. David C. Aron on Systems Thinking, Complexity Theory and Management. Changing the social contract of work. Gary Hamel on the invention of management. McKinsey Quarterly: “The next revolution in interactions”. MIT Technology Review: “The brain is not computable and no engineering can reproduce it”. Race against the machine by Brynjolfsson and McAfee. Greg Satell blog post. Ross Dawson and John Hagel on the humanization of work.

The division of labor reduced organizational effort and the cost of work in factory production. The division of labor also increased the quality of work through specialization. This led managers to focus on the efficiency of activities that were separated from other activities. Organizational design was seen as the planning and execution of a collection of independent, but connected jobs forming the workflow system.

Connections were based on top-down command-and-control and horizontal, sequential processes. In both cases the action of one part was meant to set off the action of another. Interaction was understood as one-way signals, a system of senders and receivers, a system of causes and effects.

In the cause-and-effect model of communication a thought arising within one individual is translated into words, which are then transmitted to another individual. At the receiving end, the words translate into the same thought, if the formulation of the words and the transmission of those words are good enough.

Physical tasks could be broken up in a reductionist way. Bigger tasks could be divided by assigning people to different, smaller and fairly independent parts of the whole. For intellectual tasks, it is not possible to find independent parts because intellectual tasks are by default linked and interdependent, creating a totally different work environment. In this new work, communication is not talking about work, but work is communication between people.  This is why a social business follows a very different model of causality.

In this model of complex causality, communication takes the form of a gesture made by an individual that evokes a response from someone else. The meaning can only be known in the gesture and response together. If I smile at you and you respond with a smile, the meaning is friendly, but if you respond with a cold stare, the meaning may be contempt. Gestures and responses cannot be separated but constitute one act. Neither side can independently choose the meaning of the words or control the conversation. Thus you can never control communication.

The cause-and-effect model of management presumes, accordingly, that leadership potential resides within an individual person, who is the cause. From a social business standpoint the individualistic view is fundamentally misleading. One cannot be inspiring or energizing alone. These qualities are co-created in an active process of mutual recognition. An inspiring person is only inspiring by virtue of others who treat her this way. A good decision is only good if there are agreeable people around. Mutually recognizing and mutually supporting relationships are the sources of progress. Actions always emerge in a network of relationships – in co-action instead of cause and effect.

Any higher-value activity involves complementary and parallel contributions from more than one person or one team. Instead of division of labor and the vertical/horizontal communication design, the managerial focus should now be in synchronous co-action and enriching interaction. Communication does not represent things in the world. It brings people and things into being.

Social businesses are about interdependent people working in complex interaction

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Emotional contagion is a fact of life. It means that our moods and even physical health are created in interaction with other people. We tilt either to the positive or the negative as a result of our relations, and the further relations, the people that we relate with have. It is a chain that goes far beyond the horizon. This is why we can no longer see our minds as independent and separate but as thoroughly social. Our mental life is co-created in a larger and larger interconnected network. What we have called the individual mind is something that arises continuously in relationships between people.

Our social interactions also play a role in shaping our brain. We know now that repeated experiences sculpt the synaptic connections and rewire our brain. Accordingly, our relationships gradually frame our neural circuitry. Being chronically depressed by others or being emotionally nourished and enriched has lifelong impacts.

Mainstream thinking sees the social in social business as a platform or a community, on a different level from the individuals who form it. The social is seen as separate from the individuals.

The approach suggested here follows a different reasoning and sees individuals as social. Both the individual and the social are then about interaction, where the individual is interaction inside and the social is interaction outside. The inside and outside cannot be separated or understood separately.

Interaction starts with recognition. It is about granting attention to others and making room for them in our lives. Being recognized has tremendous significance. People in traditional companies were often stuck in narrow, repetitive patterns of communication that provided them with numbing, repressive and even neurotic experiences.

Leading and following in the traditional corporate sense have seen the leader making people follow him through motivation and rewards. The leader also decided who the followers should be.

When seen through the logic of social media, leading and following have a very different dynamic. Leading in this new social business sense is not position-based, but recognition-based. People, the followers, also decide. The leader is someone people trust to be at the forefront in an area which is temporally meaningful for them. People also recognize as the leader someone who inspires, energizes and empowers them.

Another huge difference from traditional management thinking is that because of the diversity of contexts people link to, there can never be just one “boss”. Thus, an individual always has many leaders that she follows. You might even claim that from the point of view taken here, it is highly problematic if a person only has one leader. It would mean attention blindness as a default state.

Following is at best a process of active, creative learning through observing and simulating desired practices. Leading is doing one’s work in an open, inspiring and transparent way. Leading is engaging with people and being reflective. Patterns of recognition and patterns of communication are the most predictive activities there are in forecasting viability, agility and also human well-being.

Identity is a pattern in time. The individual and the social are born, and form one another at the same time. You can’t add a social layer to what you do, or to your IT systems – you are social!

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Thank you Ralph Stacey, Doug Griffin, Ken Gergen and Dian Marie Hosking

More: “The idea of following in the age of Twitter

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