23 January 2009

EMD IV: Encouraging Continuous Emergence

If you have arrived at this post directly, and are not familiar with my research, you may want to also visit some of the posts under the Valence Theory and Thesis labels, as well as reading the very quick primer.

I sometimes wonder whether we are doing our high school students a disservice by teaching them Newtonian mechanics. Yes, it’s a great way to fill up the physics curriculum requirement, and an awfully good way to have them practice algebra, trigonometry, and eventually, calculus (sometimes with the emphasis on the “awful”). But filling their heads with a classical, cause-and-effect model of dynamics in what is proving to be a complex world? Perhaps not the best idea. No, this isn’t a riff on the 17th century grounding of contemporary era curricula and education (for that, you can watch this). Rather, it is an argument for basic training in complexity, especially as it applies to thinking about organizations.

BAH organizations are specifically designed to promote stability via operating at a point of equilibrium (among other things). They seem to be relatively good at finding classical approaches to questions such as: How can we minimize the impact of unexpected events? What procedures can we implement that will reduce defects and improve quality (like Total Quality Management, Six Sigma, and other similar nonsense when applied to anything other than a manufacturing line). How can we ensure that unexpected (a.k.a. unanticipated) events, outcomes, and consequences will (repeat after me, kiddies) “never happen again!” In point of fact, it’s not all that difficult to accomplish. The organization need only agree to never be interested in innovation, adaptability, and learning, and be willing to accept the inevitability of its sooner-rather-than-later demise. Sadly, boys and girls in MBA school, that is the reality of stability via control, singular vision, and blind adherence to the supremacy of the bottom line.

If the world in which organizations exist was, in fact, a closed system with regard to both its social and material environments, stability and equilibrium would be the appropriate objectives. But, unfortunately for many among management and leadership ranks, the world is more appropriately modelled as an open system. Hence, achieving stability through attaining a state of equilibrium equals death. To understand how organizations might better function in the context of an open system – like the world – we need to draw instead from thinkers like Ilya Prigogine.

Prigogine observed that thermodynamic systems operating far from equilibrium nonetheless enable very ordered, stable structures to emerge. He calls this phenomenon a dissipative structure because it dissipates energy through itself to maintain stability, and enables evolution to other, more complex structures at higher levels of energy. Between points of stability are periods of instability – some might call it a chaotic state – and disruptive transformation before the system reaches a bifurcation point, out of which emerges the new, more complex configuration. Because of multiple feedback loops among its components (say, organization members) dissipative structures as coherent entities exhibit non-linear characteristics that cannot be predicted from observing the individual behaviours of its component elements (like people).

Prigogine’s dissipative structures do a fairly good job of characterizing important aspects of contemporary organizations, and the absurdity of attempting to discover universal, linear descriptors and predictive correlations (hey there, all you quantitative organizational researchers!), as well as attempting to uncover universal (as opposed to simply useful) explanations for organizational behavior. In the case of an organization that is thrown into a state of chaos or disruption of stability through various external influences, the strategy of attempting to “bring things under control” using methods of imposed power dynamics that tend towards creating a state of equilibrium is likely counterproductive. Instead, what is required is additional energy and more interaction and feedback loops that might generate a bifurcation point and a new, emergent state of stability at a higher level of complexity. Note that there is an element of indeterminacy (unpredictability) at bifurcation points; the path that the system follows is a function of the system’s history (collective memory) and various external conditions, both of which introduce randomness into the system’s (organization’s) longer-term trajectory. And yes, indeterminacy, randomness of outcome, and ceding control are all aspects that are anathema to both BAH organizations as institutions, and traditional management training and practice.

So how do UCaPP organizations differ from BAH organizations in this regard? BAH organizations tend to seek out the same voices and opinions for guidance. There are steering committees, management committees, executive groups, and teams of senior managers whose opinions are exclusively sought. Even when “regular employees’” opinions are solicited, they are often filtered through managers or Human Resources personnel who bring a relatively consistent socialization in how things are done – so-called best practices learned through the mythos created by the case study method. However, in general, the leaders at the top of the status hierarchy generally gather together the same sorts of people, if not the same individuals, from whom to seek guidance, advice, and thought regarding both strategic and tactical issues.

UCaPP organizations, on the other hand, deliberately encourage the type of intellectual energy that creates bifurcation points, and hence the emergence of new strategic and tactical structures (of decisions, action, and effects; we’re speaking of more than simply organizational structures). They accomplish this by not merely responding to externally imposed change, but by actively seeking to create disruption in homogeneous thinking. Such disruption is often enacted by inviting multiple diverse voices to participate in significant conversations that otherwise might have included only those whose status/titles signalled that they were people of organizational significance. Consistent with what several of my participants suggested, one participant described it this way:
Someone at an entry level position might have … had an experience through a parent who told their stories at work, or something they’ve learned at college, or they had an internship, or they’re very well-read or connected, and they put a question on the table that completely changes the way you think about [the problem at hand]. And that’s what we’re working very hard not to dismiss, is how much we can learn from anybody, versus it has to be the same five to seven people, because they’re at a certain status. These decisions are no longer driven on status.
By creating sub-organizations of heterogeneous voices, experiences, and contexts, the larger (valence) organization systemically creates mechanisms that ensure ongoing environmental sensing of effects, and the appropriate flow of new energy that both maintains and helps to evolve the current dissipative structure into new, stable structures at higher levels of complexity – in other words, they deliberately encourage and enable continuous emergence. In doing so, these more-UCaPP organizations become more responsive to all of their constituent members, and therefore are more effective, and ultimately more successful.

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Anonymous said...

Your comment: this isn’t a riff on the 17th century grounding of contemporary era curricula and education (for that, you can watch this). doesn't have a link.

Mark Federman said...

Yes, I just notice that, and fixed it. It's the TVO Big Ideas episode, No Educator Left Behind.

Anonymous said...

I tried to post this comment earlier, but it doesn't seem to have worked. Anyway, thanks for another insightful post! I wonder, though, if the first sentence of the last paragraph should read, "By creating sub-organizations of heterogenous voices..?" Otherwise it seems to contradict the preceding paragraph.

Mark Federman said...

Thanks again! Yes you caught a typo - now corrected.