In Leading Imperfect Change Martin Webster questioned the need to plan in detail when implementing large-scale change. Indeed he argued that detailed planning doesn’t guarantee success. In this post we look at change in complex systems and suggest that we must choose to lead change in new ways.
Leadership for Change in Complex Systems
Whilst cohesive teams and robust processes may be necessary for managing day-to-day issues they do not encourage freedom of thought or the learning that is needed in times of sustained change. We return to the machine metaphor: during periods of stability and certainty there tends to be a high level of agreement. The organisation is less creative and acts much like a machine.
In contrast, when we are far from certainty and agreement, innovation and creativity is needed. The organisation has to be open to new ideas and learning. The organisation needs flexibility. Strategy emerges.
I haven’t the slightest idea how to change people, but I still keep a long list of the prospective candidates just in case I should ever figure it out. - David Sedaris
And this is where some organisations struggle. They fail to adapt and change because culture, politics and routines dictate that strategy is prescribed. That change is the result of planned moves. In reality, this does not happen! Strategies for change are rarely logical or rational. Indeed strategic decisions are often the result of external factors and political bargaining between those who wield power and influence.
The old pattern is inadequate. The organisation will fail to accomplish its purpose because it cannot adapt quickly or learn from experiences.
What’s more, the organisation is often at odds with its workforce. Whilst people understand the problems the organisation invariably continues on the wrong path because it is inflexible and influenced by typical leadership intuition.
Unsurprisingly this causes tension.
So we have a choice: either smooth over the differences of opinion and tell people what to do or be open to new ideas and seek an alternative way forward. Good leaders do the latter. Leadership for change in complex systems means we are open to experimentation: testing new ideas and reflecting on what happens. We learn. The organisation learns. The organisation adapts.
We can’t impose our will on a system. We can listen to what the system tells us, and discover how its properties and our values can work together to bring forth something much better than could ever be produced by our will alone. - Donella Meadows
Organisations need leaders that are open to new possibilities through experimentation. Leaders who encourage creativity and innovation. Leaders who see conflict as a positive experience and an opportunity to work through the tension. They lead by serving.
Be a Complexity Thinker
In How to Change the World [US Kindle] by Jurgen Appelo tells us that the organisation is complex and adaptive. As leaders we need “to keep poking it with ideas and check how it responds and changes.” We need to be serious about change and ask ourselves the following questions
- What is my goal?
- Where is it going well?
- What are the crucial steps?
- When and where do I start?
- How do I get feedback?
- How do I measure results?
- How do I accelerate results?
Have Your Say
What will you do different? Will you listen? Will you change? Please join the discussion.
Images: Frédéric Bisson.