I've argued throughout this blog and elsewhere that management thinking and practice is seriously undermined if we fail to take seriously the complex social dynamics of organization (see here and here, for example). At the same time, I don’t think it is helpful for those who share this view to ram the language of complexity - and especially complexity science - down managers’ throats.
Provided that we stick with language that reflects their everyday lived experience, I find that managers (whether CEOs or first-line supervisors) can readily recognize and make sense of these hidden, messy, and informal dynamics. A friend once described this approach as, "Talking about complexity without talking about complexity."
So what might this mean for management and consulting practice?
My suggested 'Dos and Don'ts' are…
… Don't talk about complexity as such (unless managers are really interested in the topic!). As an abstract concept, it can be more confusing than enlightening to use the term in everyday practice. It is also often confused in blog posts, tweets, and day-to-day talk with the structural notion of 'complicatedness' - rather than as a descriptor of the underlying dynamics of organization.
… Definitely don't talk about "complexity science". It is true that this offers insights into some of the dynamics of organization by way of analogy - such as non-linearity, self-organization, and emergence. And it also draws attention to the patterning nature of local interaction. But the usual reference points from the natural world bear little relationship to the social, political, cultural, and context-specific dynamics of human interaction. It's much more meaningful - and useful - to express these dynamics in terms of people's everyday conversational interactions.
… Do draw attention to the myths of certainty, predictability, and control that govern (and too often disfigure) conventional management thinking and practice. And contrast this with what managers recognize as the real-world 'wiggliness' of all aspects of organization - arising from their own and everyone else's participation in it.
… Do help managers to surface and 'unpack' their own understanding of these hidden, messy, and informal dynamics of everyday organizational life, so that they become consciously aware of what they alredy know instinctively.
… Do draw attention to the essentially conversational nature of this sense-making-cum-action-taking process. Managers soon recognize that this ongoing conversational process is self-organizing (even in a so-called “command and control” regime). And that whatever emerges from it, emerges.
… Also do point out that, since everyone is continuously participating in this process, overall 'outcomes' (business performance, organizational change, etc.) necessarily emerge from the widespread interplay of these many, 'local' (i.e. one-to-one and small-group) interactions and the diverse intentions that these embody.
… And do, of course, try to help managers to understand the implications of all of this for their own day-to-day leadership practice, organizational change, and business performance.
… Finally, though, do resist the temptation to claim that an undertanding of the complex dynamics of organization will enable managers to ensure that outcomes will turn out in line with their intentions! Or that self-organization and emergence can somehow be 'released', 'harnessed', or otherwise 'brought into line'!
When we talk about organization as being "complex", we're talking about nothing more than…
… the process of interdependent people interacting together on a continuing basis…
… the'local', self-organizing, and path-dependent nature of the conversations through which those people make sense of events and take action…
… the widespread and non-linear patterning of those interactions and organizing themes - designed and emergent,'legitimate' and shadow, conscious and unconscious, etc. - through which 'outcomes' emerge and become recognized as such.