In a recent article for Forbes, Managing Complexity: The Battle Between Emergence And Entropy, LBS Professor Julian Birkinshaw offers the view that there are three processes at work in organizations that account for their "level of complexity".
These he describes as:
- The top-down organizational design process.
- A bottom-up emergent process of spontaneous interaction which he equates with the notion of self-organisation.
- An entropic process, in which an (essentially closed) organisational system moves gradually and inexorably towards maximum disorder (or, importing the language of the Second Law of Thermodynamics, towards maximum entropy).
Apparently, "we all know" how the first of these three processes works - although the inference that this has nothing to do with self-organization and emergence belies that claim.
As regards the second, ‘bottom-up’ process of self-organizing emergence, Birkinshaw suggests that, under "the right conditions … well-intentioned individuals … will come together to create effective coordinated action".
And, in terms of the threat of "maximum disorder" arising from ‘The Second Law’, the claim is that, "… as organisations grow larger, they become insular and complacent. People focus more on avoiding mistakes and securing their own positions than worrying about what customers care about. Inefficiencies and duplications creep in. Employees become detached and disengaged. The organisation becomes aimless and inert."
From this standpoint, Birkinshaw argues that "… more and more of the leader’s job is to manage the social forces in the organisation". By this he means, "keeping entropy at bay" by periodically removing layers of management and eliminating bureaucracy; and "inspiring emergent action [by] providing employees with a clear and compelling reason to work together to achieve some sort of worthwhile objective".
His "underlying conceptual point" is that "the more open the organisation is to external sources of energy, the easier it is to harness the forces of emergence rather than entropy."
So there we have it. Managing complexity in organizations is as easy as 1,2,3. Provided that managers do things better and get them right, as per this latest prescription, the "dark side" of complexity can be avoided and the sought-after benefits of complexity can be realized. And this is despite the acknowledgement that organisations are "social systems where people act and interact in somewhat unpredictable ways."
Taking complexity seriously
However, this failure to take complexity seriously does managers no favours. The complex social dynamics of organization are at play all of the time and in all human contexts, not just in certain circumstances and in "large organizations". And it is not a case of ‘emergence good, entropy bad’. ‘Bad’ outcomes, however defined, similarly emerge from the same, complex social process of conversational interaction.
So what does this mean in relation to Birkinshaw’s "three processes"?
- First, what he describes as the "the top-down organizational design process", is itself a complex social process. It is never a detached, rational endeavour; despite being presented as such in conventional management theory. Redesigns always threaten established power relationships, with political trade-offs, social cliques, and informal coalition-building, etc. emerging as people seek to promote particular options and resist others. And all of this is pursued through the conversational dynamics mentioned above.
- Secondly, the notion that self-organization is a "bottom-up, emergent process" that occurs under "the right conditions" is also misleading. Self-organization is the continuous process of ‘local’ (i.e. small-group and one-to-one) interactions, through which what we think of as "an organization" emerges and comes to be recognized as such. These occur just as much in and around the Boardroom as elsewhere - and just as much in a so-called "top-down, command-and-control" regime as in conditions of empowered self-management.
- Thirdly, the supposed inevitability of moving towards "disorder" or "entropy", if an organization is not exposed to ‘external’ inputs, requires particular comment. It highlights one of the problems of importing concepts directly from the natural world to describe the dynamics of human interaction and to draw conclusions from them. In everyday language, "disorder" conveys a sense of confusion, disarray, turmoil, chaos, and the like. But, in thermodynamics, increased entropy/disorder means the diametric opposite of this. That is, a tendency towards equilibrium!
We don’t need to appropriate esoteric terms like entropy to describe this generalized tendency for people to think and act in line with established patterns of understanding, rather than staying open to diverse inputs. This, too, is a natural dynamic of the complex social process through which organization is enacted. That is, the more that people make sense of things and behave in particular ways, the more likely they are to continue to do so in the same or similar ways going forward. This further reinforces existing patterns of understanding and the generalised tendency for people to respond routinely and habitually to the situations that they face.
Whilst Birkinshaw sees this general dynamic as something to be avoided (from his "entropy" perspective), it is an inevitable – and necessary - characteristic of all organizations. It allows people to go on together without having to think afresh each time as to how they should behave. And, it is just as likely to generate and sustain ‘cultural’ patterns of interaction that are organizationally enhancing as those which reflect insularity, complacency, and inertia.
Too often, the rhetoric of complexity is used to 'package' what remains a mainstream perspective on the dynamics of organization and the nature of leadership performance. Instead, managers need to understand the complex reality of organization and its implications for their own practice. Anything less is selling them short.